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In-Cell Variance Charts

In financial report we are constantly comparing the actual numbers with our projections using variances.

A quick reminder

Absolute variance = Actual – Budget

Relative variance in % = (Actual – Budget) / Budget

Doing this over a report of even 10 lines requires row by row number comparison, and is not something which can be easily & quickly scanned. Showing the variances in a classical Excel charts is problematic, as you constantly have to go back and forth between the table and the chart to scan exact numbers and the variance tend in the chart.

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In-Cell variance charts are a compact, data rich and efficient alternative.

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To create in-cell variance charts you have basically three alternatives:

1. In-Cell Chart Using the REPT Function

Rolf Hichert presents a couple of years ago on his web site (German) a character based approach. The method got quite popular when it was first presented on the  Juice Blog. The main idea is to create the bars repeating a character using the REPT function. The function REPT(“●”,5) returns “●●●●●”. The disadvantage of this approach is that you have to set up all the formulas and that don’t have a continuous scale. E.g. to show 15% you either show “●” or “●●”, but there is no way creating fractions of a character. One of the advantages of the rept approach is that the bars are automatically aligned in the grid. When you increase the row height, bars are still perfectly aligned with the numbers.

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Click here to download the Excel file

2. In-Cell Chart Using MicroCharts

Another smart way to overcome the setup and scale problems of REPT is using MicroCharts. Charts are created from MicroCharts fonts including bars, line segments and pies. A chart is represented as text that is formatted with the MicroCharts fonts. Similar to the rept fuction charts, you can utilize all the rich Excel capabilities for MicroCharts that you would for normal text!:

  • Text alignment
  • Text orientation
  • Font size
  • Conditional formatting
  • Automatic alignment when the row height changes

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Unlike the rept function MicroCharts support continues scales value axis. The chart formatting is very similar to the options with standard Excel charts:

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Hitesh Patel Winner of 2008 Excel Dashboard Competition used the Micro Bar Charts to visualize variances over areas and territories in a very cleanly presented table in his Pharmaceutical Sales Dashboard .

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3. In-Cell Charts Aligning a regular Excel Chart in the Grid

A third approach is to use regular Excel bar charts:

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The trick is to set chart area to transparent and to manually align them to the grid. The main problem with this method is that the setup of the chart can be very tedious. You will have to fiddle quite a while till the bars align perfrectly with the grid, and each time you change the row or column height width you have to readjust the chart area:

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/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:”";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

Update 06/28/2008: Jon added some insights how to handle variable rows and fourth approach for incell charts using graphical objects:

One problem arises when the number of rows covered by the chart is variable. When you have an update, you need to rely on VBA code to realign the chart, and this is not always reliable. To counter this (and to apply some “interesting” formatting requested by the client, I developed some VBA code that read values from each row and built chart using a series of rectangles and other shapes. These were aligned appropriately with the grid more simply and reliably than a chart would have been. A sample of this is shown in In Cell Charting with Shapes.

I ran into additional issues with another client who insisted that his worksheets be viewed at a zoom that filled the entire width of the screen. This has all kinds of negative issues, especially with charts. (And on my widescreen laptop, it needed a zoom of around 150%, so I had minimal rows visible. But a client is a client.) So I built some additional graphs based on Excel shapes, as illustrated in In Cell Bar Charts.

You could therefore add a fourth approach, though it isn’t accessible without code, and that is “Graphs using Graphical Objects”. This is after all how we all started with graphing data in second grade, with paper and crayons and perhaps a straightedge.

Extra tip: To further enrich your variance report with some historical context, provide the historical performance in an extra column as a sparkline:

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Categories: Charts.

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3 Responses

  1. This is a well-balanced description of techniques for aligning information in cells. I’ve spent a lot of timme using approach 3, In-Cell Charts Aligning a regular Excel Chart in the Grid. It can work pretty well, but there are shortcomings.

    One problem arises when the number of rows covered by the chart is variable. When you have an update, you need to rely on VBA code to realign the chart, and this is not always reliable. To counter this (and to apply some “interesting” formatting requested by the client, I developed some VBA code that read values from each row and built chart using a series of rectangles and other shapes. These were aligned appropriately with the grid more simply and reliably than a chart would have been. A saple of this is shown in In Cell Charting with Shapes.

    I ran into additional issues with another client who insisted that his worksheets be viewed at a zoom that filled the entire width of the screen. This has all kinds of negative issues, especially with charts. (And on my widescreen laptop, it needed a zoom of around 150%, so I had minimal rows visible. But a client is a client.) So I built some additional graphs based on Excel shapes, as illustrated in In Cell Bar Charts.

    You could therefore add a fourth approach, though it isn’t accessible without code, and that is “Graphs using Graphical Objects”. This is after all how we all started with graphing data in second grade, with paper and crayons and perhaps a straightedge.

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