Between and Member Searching

Our blog today takes a look at two new features available in v6.5 – Between and Member Searching.


In v6 we give our users  the ability to enter a reporting range for their grid reports by allowing them to enter a  ‘From’ and a ‘To’ range on a hierarchy.

The only thing to remember is that both members have to be at the same level.

So let’s try to put together an example.  Let’s say that we would like to report all data between two dates.

So we edit the hierarchy that should include the range. The hierarchy can also be on the header area of the report as well as on rows or columns.

Under the Advanced tab we click the Clear all icon  


before clicking the Member Set icon


so that we can enter the From and the To values.

Click OK and our report will show only the members in the range specified.  It’s as simple as that!

Even better for the end-user is the option to enter an Excel range so that they just enter their values into Excel cell locations.

So we’ll run the grid report based on From and To values in $I$3 and $I$4 respectively.

Another great feature of using this option is that we can choose to leave one of the ranges empty.

So if we just enter a value in the Excel cell location for the From date and leave the To date blank the report returns all data from the From date to the latest date available in the hierarchy.

As you can see in the screenshot below we have put FY 2002 in the From range and left the To range empty – so XLCubed returns all data from FY 2002 to latest.

Conversely, leaving the From date blank and entering a value in the To date will return all data from the earliest date available to the To date.  This time XLCubed returns all data until FY 2003.


So that’s how you report on a range in XLCubed.

PS Don’t forget both members of your range have to be at the same level in the hierarchy.


Member Searching

Another great feature of  v6.5  is the new functionality that allows the user to filter a report by searching for members in a hierarchy.

Let’s show this functionality in action with a simple example.

Our report below shows a simple grid with Geography on rows and Fiscal Years on columns – we’d like to show only those members in the Geography hierarchy (at all levels) that start with B.


Click the Advanced tab and then select All Hierarchy Members by clicking:

Click on Member Search and the following window will be displayed:

At this point we have two options:

  • enter a value in the Search Value field – in our example we enter B
  • use Excel range to hold the value that should be used

In our example we are using the value in cell F2 to determine the filtering on our report.

We can determine the ‘search by’ criteria as below – ‘Ends with’, ‘Begins with’, ‘Exact match’ or ‘Contains’:

Additionally, we can choose the ‘Property to search by’:

  • MEMBER_CAPTION (most commonly used)

As you can see the report now only shows those members of the Geography hierarchy that start with B regardless of their level within the hierarchy.


This example is based on an entire hierarchy but it is also possible to do the same for a specific set of members, for example, a level or descendants of a specific member.

We hope this short example has shown you how easy it is to use Between and Member Searching within XLCubed reports.


Breakout and Propagate – Oldies but Goodies

We’ve been on-site with various customers in the last few months, it’s always good to see how the product is being used, and we value customer feedback, which often feeds into our development cycle.

With two long-term customers we found that they weren’t aware of two very useful pieces of functionality which have been in the product for many years. In case there are others in the same boat…..

1) Breakout

Breakout is available on the right-click menu of any XLCubed report, grid or formula. It’s a way to understand how the number is split into elements of another hierarchy. On a right-click, you can switch to the breakdown of the number by any other hierarchy in the cube. It’s particularly useful where a reported number seems too high or too low, and needs further investigation. In the example below, we’d like to understand how the June 2004 number for the US is made up in terms of Products. We’ve chosen breakout on the right-click menu, specified the Product Model Categories hierarchy and the level to run the breakout at. The breakout result is shown on the bottom right, and we can quickly see that in June Touring bikes were contributing almost 33% of the US revenues. In this example we’ve also included a sparkline to give a feel for trend over the last 2 years (previous 23 months, plus the current month).

The breakout result is still linked to the report selection criteria, so can be used as a dynamic part of the report ongoing.


2) Propagate across Sheets

Propagate across sheets is a way to quickly replicate a report onto additional sheets, where just one variable is changed. Typical-use cases for this are entity-based reporting, where for example there is a standard P&L template across the business, and the user wants to quickly generate a P&L for each legal entity. You can build the report as normal, and then when done, right-click on the selected member for the hierarchy you want to propagate, and choose the elements which you want to create additional sheets for. On the new sheets, the formatting and print layout are identical, with the only change being the selected member on the propagated hierarchy.

This example shows the income statement about to be propagated for the four selected departments.

















Drive Excel Chart Min/Max from Range

How do I drive the min and max values of an axis from an Excel Range? This is one of the most commonly asked questions about Excel and with each new release it always amazes me that this feature hasn’t been added to the base product.

It’s a very common scenario to come across, you are building a line chart and it’s all looking ok until Excel suddenly decides to set the min value to 0, all of the detail is lost and you have gone from a nice detailed set of lines to a mishmash of colours a few pixels high.

There are some pretty sophisticated techniques Excel is using when working out what min & max to use, but sometimes we just want to set them to a particular value (normally anything other than 0!).

Here’s a pretty simple set of numbers and the resulting chart we get from Excel (just with all the defaults).











This all looks fine, but let’s change  “C” Monday’s value to 86, now look what happens:









Excel has applied its rules and decided that 0 is a good place to start the chart from, but in this case I lose a lot of the detail and end up with all the lines grouped together.

We could, of course, change the Axis min value to something a bit more sensible, so we’ll use the Format Axis option to set a minimum value of 84:













That looks better!








The base numbers had been entered manually, so being able to type a fixed value into the minimum axis is fine, but what if the numbers were coming from a cube or Sql database? Wouldn’t it be really helpful to be able to drive the minimum value from a range; I can change just about every other thing about the chart but after so many years and so many different version I still can’t do this.

Luckily for me (and our customers!) we already have an Excel addin so we can simply add the functionality to do this using one of the new formulae in 6.5:

XL3SetProperty( ObjectType, ObjectName, Property, Arg1, [Arg2],…, [Arg27] )

The formula to drive the chart axis from a range is simply:

=XL3SetProperty("Chart","Chart 1","YMin",$C$1)

Other options are:

“YMin” or “YMax”Sets the limits of the Y Axis.Numeric
“Y2Min” or “Y2Max”Sets the limits of the Y2 Axis.Numeric
“XMin” or “XMax”Sets the limits of the X Axis.Numeric
“X2Min” or “X2Max”Sets the limits of the X2 Axis.Numeric

Now finally we can build reports (and publish them to the Web), confident that regardless of the data or criteria selected  we aren’t going to end up with a line chart starting at 0 and bunching all the lines together.

This formula can also be used to modify various aspects of our own grids, slicers & small multiples based on the values of excel cells. The kind of things that we and our customers wanted to achieve were things like:

  • Move  dimensions between axes
  • Change the member selection types
  • Modify various grid properties based on different formulae

Lets look how the formula works to do some of these things:

=XL3SetProperty("Grid","My Grid","HierarchiesOnColumns","[Products]","[Regions]", $a$1)

Would move the Product, Region and whichever hierarchy is in $a$1 to the columns (I could use a slicer or drop down to update $a$1 to let the user switch between various hierarchies)

=XL3SetProperty("Grid","My Grid","RemoveEmptyRows",$b$1)

Would toggle whether to display rows without data based on the value of $b$1

If there are any aspects of Excel that you think would be useful to drive from a range, please let us know!

2011 Dashboard Competition

A slight departure from the normal blogging to let everyone know about the latest developments in XLCubed and to talk about a new dashboard competition with the chance to win an iPad 2!

Dashboard Design Competition

XLCubed are sponsoring Dashboard Insight’s first dashboard design contest. The competition is based on a provided data set, and we’d encourage as many as can to enter.

We believe that XLCubed offers a class-leading dashboard development environment, with fine grained control over chart and table sizing, and we’re looking forward to seeing some great dashboards. Take a look at some of our previous winners for inspiration.

Don’t forget that this blog also contains lots of helpful information that should help you come up with a great dashboard design.

We’ll provide entrants with the sample data set in a local cube format to fully exploit the strengths of XLCubed. Entry is open to customers and non-customers alike, and your dashboard skills can win you a shiny new iPad 2. Good luck if you choose to enter.


XLCubed v6.5

Version 6.5 is due for release in early October. Originally scheduled as 6.2, we decided it contains so much over the current version that it deserved a bigger billing. New for 6.5 are:


  • iPad / iPhone app – XLCubed web reports have always worked on smartphones and tablets. However our app brings an intuitive iPad optimised user experience to report navigation and selection.

  • Mapping – Integrated point and shape based mapping in Excel and on the web.
  • Scheduling – email delivery of XLCubed web reports by pdf or Excel. Schedules can be controlled by period, or by data exception.
  • Sharepoint WebPart – customers have been using XLCubed Web reports in SharePoint for a number of years, but we now introduce a dedicated WebPart to make the process simpler and provide greater flexibility and depth of integration.
  • Away from the headline items there are a number of significant smaller enhancements which make 6.5 another big step forward for us. We’re looking forward to bringing it to market. For an early test drive, contact us along with your specific area of interest at

Lastly we’d like to welcome Cardinal Solutions Group to our partner program. Cardinal operate in North Carolina and Ohio and are one of a select few Microsoft Managed Partners in the U.S. East and Central Regions. We look forward to working together with new and existing customers.

Scheduling Reports with XLCubed

With version 6.2, XLCubed introduces a new feature that we’ve had enquiries about for a while now: the ability to send scheduled reports to email recipients. In this post we’ll go over the basics of how it works and why you might want it.

The Scenario

As report designers and publishers, it’s our job to share our findings with others. In some cases, we have the opportunity to present the information in person at company meetings, and in other cases, just publishing a data-driven dashboard, table or report to XLCubed Web Edition allows our audience to examine the data at their leisure.

In many cases, however, we’d like to provide our consumers with a report on a regular basis. This might be a week end sales report, or perhaps one showing a breakdown of new issues versus issues resolved during the month. By automatically sending an email containing the report, we no longer have to worry about missing that important information.

In some situations we don’t want to have a regular report, but we do want to know when some performance measure is unexpectedly high or low. Under these circumstances it can even be distracting to be updated too frequently: it would be much better to only be notified when the measure is in the unusual condition.

Both of these scenarios are catered for by XLCubed’s new scheduling feature.

Setting up the Report

As always, the report design step is carried out in Excel. For scheduled reports, there are a couple of additional considerations when designing your report.

As with normal reports, scheduled reports can use web parameters. These are enhanced for scheduled reports, allowing you to place items such as the current time, user or role on the report. This means that the report can use those variables to allow a customised view of the data.

In addition to this, when setting up the schedule you can specify one of the web parameters to be a trigger: the report will only be sent if the value in the parameter cell is TRUE.

Scheduling Basics

Since different scenarios require different schedules, XLCubed makes it easy to control exactly what is sent and when. When setting up a schedule, there will be a few things to choose.

Firstly, each schedule contains one or more reports to send. Each report can be sent as a static Excel file or as an Acrobat document (.PDF), and can be given any parameters that were defined when publishing it. In addition to arbitrary text, there are some special codes that can be inserted as parameters:

%date%Inserts the current date
%time%Inserts the current time
%datetime%Inserts the current date and time
%rolename%Inserts the database role or roles that are being used
%groupname%Inserts the name of the distribution group
%email%Inserts the email address of the recipient
%username%Inserts the username of the recipient
%displayname%Inserts the display name of the recipient
%sendiftrue%Triggers sending of the report

The last of these codes is special. Instead of inserting anything into the report, XLCubed examines the parameter’s cell and sends the report only if the value is TRUE. This means that not only can you create a trigger based on your data, but you can create complex logic based on multiple criteria in Excel.

Secondly, each schedule is set to run at particular times on particular days. As you would expect, XLCubed provides a framework that allows you to fulfil a wide range of different requirements, whether you need to run your reports every day, every other week, or even only on the 29th of February.

Lastly, each schedule of course lets you choose who to send the reports to.

Report Distribution

XLCubed allows two different ways to set up the recipients for a report. The first is ideal for where the report needs to be sent to just one or two people. Just type in the email addresses and it’s ready to go.

The alternative is slightly more complex to set up, but once set up, it’s easy to make new reports with the same recipients. To use this, you set up a Distribution Group, composed of any number of people. To make it easy to set up the reports as needed, each Group is assigned a Database Role to use and a Locale to format its numbers and dates. One or more Distribution Groups are assigned to each Distribution List, so that your scheduled report can be sent to more than one group at once:

Distribution Lists and Groups schematic

To illustrate this with an example, imagine that there was a particular report that you needed to send to managers in the USA, China and Germany. Since the formatting and roles would be different for each group of managers, you would need a setup something like this:

Distribution Lists and Groups example

Solve order shenanigans

Today I’m going to blog about a problem we recently solved in a client’s cube, an error in the Mdx script that’s very easy to make if you aren’t careful.

We’ll run a simple example in AdventureWorks (what else?) to demonstrate the issue.

The client had already added a calculation to their cube to show year-on-year growth. The formula is:

Create Member CurrentCube.[Measures].[Delta to PrevYear] as
    ([Measures].[Internet Sales Amount])
    ([Measures].[Internet Sales Amount],
            [Date].[Calendar].[Calendar Year],
    ([Measures].[Internet Sales Amount],
            [Date].[Calendar].[Calendar Year],
, Format_String = "0.00%";

(some error checking removed for clarity)

This screenshot shows a couple of simple XLCubed Grids showing the real value, and below the percentage change. I have added in an Excel calculation to show the results are as expected.

Later during the cube development, the client added a calculated member in their Product dimension, one that gives a total excluding one of the product categories.

To replicate this I’ll add a calculation for “All Ex Bikes”:

Create Member 
CurrentCube.[Product].[Product Model Categories].[All Products].[All Ex Bikes]
    ([Product].[Product Model Categories].[All Products])
    ([Product].[Product Model Categories].[Category].&[1])

And if we run the report again we get the following.

Notice the cell I’ve highlighted. The “All Ex Bikes” calculation works fine on the normal measure, but it gives totally the wrong number for the percentage calculation. What’s going on?

The problem is that in the cell highlighted Analysis Services has two calculations to think about when working out the result.

  • Compare this year to last year
  • Get the “Grand Total”, and subtract “Bikes”

As the number returned is 1.85% we can see that Analysis Services has chosen the second option, “Grand Total” – “Bikes”.

What we really want is for the calculation to be done by getting the subtotal, and then doing the percentage change based on that.

Fortunately the fix was a simple one. Analysis Services will run the calculations in the order they are found in the Mdx Script, so to fix the issue we simply moved the new “All Ex Bikes” definition up above the percentage calculation.

Now the number returned matches our expectations.

Pass/Solve Order can be a complex topic, so you may need to be careful.

In this case the number is totally wrong, so it was easy to spot, but some bugs will be much more subtle, so watch out!

Warning: Excel can get Volatile

Excel is a great tool for dashboard/report delivery and design (it’s why we created our addin in the first place), but there is a hidden performance trap:

Offset, Now, Today, Cell, Indirect, Info and Rand

If you’ve ever used any of these formulae, you may have noticed that whenever you change a cell, or collapse/expand a data grouping, Excel recalculates. That is because these are VOLATILE formulae, as soon as you use one of these, Excel will enter a mode where everything is always recalculating, and for good reason.

Offset & Now are the formulae we see used most often. Let’s look at each of these in turn and talk about some alternate approaches to avoid this issue.


This is by far the most common of these danger formulae that we see in use. Here’s the formula definition:

Returns a reference to a range that is a given number of rows and columns 
from a given reference.

We typically see these as part of a named range definition for driving chart source data – it allows the number of rows/columns driving the chart data to change automatically; a not unusual requirement when it comes to building reports (especially when a report contains some user defined filters or slicers). Here’s an example:







A very simple spreadsheet – we can type the number of months to display in the chart. In reality the number of months to display will probably be driven by the data available for the criteria selected. The screenshot already shows the issue we have –  the chart is setup to display a max of 12 months, but we only have 3 months of data available.


The most obvious approach is to use the Offset formula to pick the chart area to use automatically, we could create a named range such as:







Now we just change the chart data source to be the named range:





The chart is now plotting 3 months, but will automatically update to show the required number of months:

BUT we have now used a volatile formula –  although this is a simple workbook, we are now in a position where Excel is going to have to recalculate everything all the time. It’s probably a good time to look at why Excel is going to do that. Let’s have a look at very simple formula to understand how Excel recalculates things.

Consider the formula:

C1    =A1 + B1

We can see that C1 is dependent upon A1 & B1 – so whenever a value in either of these cells changes C1 will need to be recalculated to show the correct answer. Excel knows about this dependency because it maintains a dependency tree; it knows which cells need to be recalculated whenever any other cell changes. This is a very efficient way of working, if a workbook has thousands of formula, but only one values changes, and this only needs 10 of these formula to recalculate, then only 10 will be calculated.

If C1 contained:

C1    =Sum(A1:A20)

We know that C1 depends upon any of the cells A1:A20, and so does Excel. But what if C1 was:

C1    =Sum(Offset(A1,0,0,B1,1))

Which cells is C1 dependent upon? At a glance you could say A1 & B1.







but  B1 contains the number 20, so actually C1 is dependent upon A1:A20 and B1 (I’ve highlighted the additional cells that are dependent):








Just as we can’t see at a glance which cells C1 needs – Excel also can’t easily decide that. Therefore, Offset is volatile because, if it wasn’t then there is a danger that Excel would take so long to work out if it needs to be calculated that it might as well always calculate it.

There is an easy solution to this, INDEX. Here’s the formula definition (be careful, there are 2 ways to use Index, we want the REFERENCE one):

Returns a value of reference of the cell at the intersection of a 
particular row and column, in a given range
The big difference, compared to Offset, is that Index is going to return a single cell reference, so you need to use it as part of a range selection A1:Index(…). Here’s the same “Offset” Sum redefined as an “Index”:
C1    =SUM(A1:INDEX(A1:A20,B1,0))

The formula is simply saying the range we want starts at A1 and goes down the number of rows set in B1. The crucial difference is that the Index functions knows that A1:A20 is the maximum range we are likely to look at and therefore the dependencies are known just by looking at the formula itself:

We can now update the Named Range to use the Index function instead:





The Now and Today functions return the current date to a cell – this is generally used so that when a report is loaded it will always show the data based on “Today”. Whilst this is not an unreasonable thing to want to do,  in reality what most people want is for the report to run for the most recent data, which could actually mean a number of things:

  • Yesterday (if the data is built in a nightly process)
  • The last working day (if the source transactional system is only used during office hours)
  • Current month etc.

The easiest solution is to let the data determine the date to use – if we use an XLCubed Grid or Query Table to retrieve the data we can simply setup a grid to retrieve the days/months where there is data:

And use the Sort option “Reverse” to display the most recent data first:

With the grid set to “Refresh on Open”  we know that A6 will always have the most recent date available in the cube and can base the rest of the report off that cell.

Incidentally, V6.2 of XLCubed introduces a new option to Slicers to automatically select the most recent date member when the report is loaded:

Ranking, Sorting and Filtering

Once we have returned cube members into a grid report we often need to exclude or change the order of the result set to provide more meaningful information. MDX (Multidimensional Expressions) language includes some very useful operators to provide filtering (FILTER), sorting (ORDER) and ranking (TOPCOUNT/BOTTOMCOUNT) of dimension members. These can be quite overwhelming even for power users of XLCubed.  So, in V6, we have introduced a new feature “Advanced Member Selections” to provide easy access to this powerful part of Microsoft Analysis Services.

Using this new functionality we can nest and combine these operations to answer complex business questions (for simpler operations you can right-click on a member in the grid and use the “Apply” menu to perform simple ranking, filters and sorting).


So let’s go through a simple filtering example.  Say, for example, that we want to find the products at Product Key level that sold more than 25 units in 2003, Quarter 1 and show the sales figures for those subcategories during 2003 and its quarters.

  1. Start by clicking the Grid ribbon item (or the XLCubed > Design Grid menu item in Excel 2003 and below), and selecting the Internet Sales cube file
  2. Drag Calendar Period to Columns and Product to Rows. You can also drag any other hierarchies to Headers. In the example image below, Measures and Customer have been added there.

  1. Click on the Product hierarchy so that its details appear in the bottom-right panel.
  2. Drag the Product key level over to the right of the dialog. You can switch between the members view and levels view by clicking on the Show Levels icon ().
  3. Click the Advanced tab to show the advanced selection pane:

  1. Click the Members drop down and choose Filter result:

  1. Click the Calendar Period edit control in the grid to change its selection to the desired member (2003, Quarter 1):

  1. Select the This measure radio button, and select Order Quantity as the desired measure.
  2. Change the Operation to >, and type 25 in the edit field on the right:

  1. Click OK. The new filter is displayed in the advanced selections tab:

  1. Click OK again to run the Report – the Grid shows the members that fit our criteria:


So we can see the results, filtering by 2003 Q1, but displaying the values for All Time (or any other period we wish to use). We could have also used the Range selector:    to drive the period selecting from an Excel Range and our grid would automatically refresh whenever the driving value changes.


Now let’s add a ranking to find the bottom 8 selling products at the Product Key level that have sold more than 25 units inQ1:

  1. Display the Product Hierarchy Editor dialog
  2. Click the Rank result icon () on the advanced selections tab to display the Edit Ranking dialog
  3. Select the Bottom radio button, and type 8 into the edit field
  4. Select 2003, Quarter 1 for the Calendar Period hierarchy in the grid below:

We now have the filter, following by the ranking:


Run the Grid: only the lowest 8 members are returned



Now let’s sort the report on a different dimension – for example, descending order of the Q1 sales.

  1. Display the Hierarchy Editor for the Product hierarchy by double-clicking on the Product label in the Grid
  2. If it’s not already visible, select the Advanced tab
  3. Click the Sort result toolbar button ()
  4. Change the Calendar Period selection to 2003, Quarter 1:

  1. Click the Sort Descending (9-1) radio button
  2. Click OK. The new sort is displayed in the advanced selections tab
Click OK again to run the Report


Joining Results

It’s also possible to join different results together: combining both sets (UNION), excluding members (EXCEPT) and returning common members (INTERSECT).

So we could also add the top 10 products  along side the bottom 8 products to the grid. Begin by adding another member selection using the “Add Member List” tool-bar button:

As before, we select the list of members to rank (in this case the Product Key level) and then select the operation we want to perform, a Top 10:

There are various options to decide how to combine the lists, we’ll stick with Add:



And we get both results combined:

So the “Advanced Member Selections” feature provides lots of the power of Analysis Services in a simplified way  – to try this feature for yourself you can begin by downloading XLCubed.

Small Multiples on River Quality

The phrase small multiple was popularised by Edward Tufte, and has become a generic term for a visual display using the same chart or graphic to display different slices of a data set. Their close positioning and shared scale make comparisons very easy and shared trends or outliers can be quickly spotted. Various other terms are also used to describe this charting approach, or specific aspects of it, including Trellis Charts, Lattice Charts, Grid Charts and Panel Charts.

The most common use case for small multiples is separate line charts to compare trend across a large number of varying elements. Placing them all within one chart would cause either a ‘spaghetti chart’ , or lots of occlusion as shown in the comparison below. Here we use a standard Excel line chart, and an XLCubed small multiple to chart the same data. Separating the charts while keeping a consistent axis scale makes for a much easier comparison than in the single chart.

We took a slightly different approach when using small multiples to take a look at differences in river water quality across regions of the UK. Our source data was not absolute numeric values, but 14 years of results categorised into four bandings (bad, poor, fair and good). We wanted to provide a ‘one-pager’ which gave a feel for the trend within each region, but also access to the annual breakdown of the different water qualities.

In the end we settled on a Small Multiple display of 100% stacked columns as shown below.

A percentage base seemed a sensible way to approach the data, as different regions will have differing numbers of rivers and of samples taken. Using this approach we’re able to see a comparison of the relative water quality rather than dealing in absolutes.

The user selects a geographic area of the country to view the regional breakdown within the selected area. The water quality for a particular year can be analysed by locating the region, and the specific year to see the percentage breakdown for each of the four categories.

The colouring of the 4 categories was chosen to aid ‘at a glance’ recognition of the overall water quality by region, and also of the trend. Dark blue signifies bad quality water (opaque), and light blue signifies good quality (think ‘you can see right through it….’).

So to read the display overall, or for trend:
• Dark colour signifies water quality problems.
• Light colour signifies good quality water.
• Reading left to right, increasing colour saturation shows declining quality over time.
• Reading left to right, decreasing colour saturation shows improving quality over time.
• Any region can be zoomed in on to see a larger chart and understand the breakdown in more detail.

Fairly quickly, and from just this one display we can draw a number of conclusions as below:
• Across the region, as a broad brush summary, water quality has improved since 1992.
• Doncaster has shown strong and steady improvement.
• Kingston upon Hull has the worst quality overall in the region, and varies significantly year on year.
• If you’re off for a swim in a Yorkshire river, Richmondshire looks a good bet!

We’ve designed a pre-set view in this case to work for the data in question, but the small multiple concept is also very powerful when interactively exploring data. A picture can tell a thousand words as they say – take a look at our youtube videos on small multiples: Video1 Video2


Number Formats

One of the main reasons we use Excel is to analyse and display our data, for either our own consumption, or to show to others. In both cases, we want our data to be easily readable, and any important patterns to be immediately obvious.

We use colours, borders and other formatting to highlight important characteristics of our data, and to de-emphasize those features that should stay in the background (see  The Dashboard Squint Test for more). In just the same way, we can use number formats to highlight numbers that are unusual in some way, decrease the focus on uninteresting numbers, or to remove excess detail. Here we recap the essentials of numeric formatting in Excel.

The basics

To apply or change a number format, select the cell or range that needs to be altered, then either:

  • make basic changes (add or remove decimal places, use percentages and so on) using the Number button group on the Home tab (in Excel 2007 and newer),
  • make more advanced changes by right-clicking on the range and selecting the Format Cells option,
  • if you prefer keyboard shortcuts, you can show the format cells dialog by using the Ctrl+1 keyboard shortcut.

From the dialog, you can select some common and very useful formats, including:

  • Number: this allows you to customise the number of decimal places and whether to show thousand separators
  • Date and Time: for formatting dates and times, allowing a variety of shorter and longer options
  • Percentage: format the numbers as percentages, with the desired number of decimal places
  • Custom: allows you to specify your own custom formats (see below)

Simple custom formats

We’ll first go through some simple examples, including some of the standard formats mentioned above, so that in the next section we can build up more complex ones. To enter these formats, follow the steps listed above, then select Custom from the list on the left of the dialog.

  • To show a custom number of decimal places using a number format, write the number you want to show using zeros, for example 0.00 to show your number using 2 decimal places
  • To include digits only if they exist, use a # sign instead of the zero. For example, to only include the part of the number before the decimal if greater than 1 (or less than -1), use #.00
  • To include a thousands separator in the number, use #,###. We use the # symbol to avoid forcing Excel to display unnecessary zeros
  • To format numbers as percentages, just place a % after the format. For example, using the 0.0% format will cause 0.2534 to display as 25.3%
  • To give the numbers a colour, put the name of the colour in square brackets before the format, like this: [Red]0.0

More advanced formats

The formats that we have used so far only use one format for all numbers. In fact, Excel lets us specify four formats: one for positive numbers and one format for negative numbers, one for zeros and one for text – all in one cell. To do this, we use the semicolon to separate the different formats. For example, to format only negative numbers as blue, we can use 0.0;[Blue]-0.0;; In this example, because we have left the other sections blank, zeros will appear as empty cells on the worksheet.

If we combine the pieces of information from the last paragraph, we can find another useful format. Any cells with the ;;; format applied will hide any data in the cell. This can be useful if you want a formula in a particular cell, but don’t want to hide an entire row or column for it.

Another common case is where you have large numbers, but don’t need to see all the digits. In this case, it can be useful to just emphasize the important part of the number, by using this format: 0, This format will round to the nearest thousand, and remove the excess zeros. You can extend this to millions by using another comma, and it’s even possible to include an indicator that the number is shortened like this: 0,,”M”

There are many more special formats available, including changing the boundaries between the semicolons and date and time formats. Have a look at the further reading, below, for more information.

Number formats in XLCubed

XLCubed, being tightly integrated with Excel, allows you to specify number formats in two ways.

  1. For XLCubed value formulas, for example XL3Lookup and XL3ValueRankLookup, the number format of the containing cell can be modified in the way described above. In the same way as any normal Excel-based formula, the format is preserved when the value changes due to changes in your data.
  2. For XLCubed Grids, apply the format as above, then use the right-click menu, and choose Apply Format to Data. This asks XLCubed to maintain the format on the entire slice of your data. More detailed instructions can be found here.

Table of reference


Further reading