Category Archives: Excel Tricks

The Missing Link in Excel BI

When viewing a high level summary report or dashboard, users often want to delve into more detail on a specific area. In some cases that may be a drill down, in many others it may be to a different view of the data or to an entirely different report. In the XLCubed example below, users can link from any one of the summary KPIs to a detail report showing product level detail for the selected KPI.

This is a fairly common requirement in reporting. In a standard Excel context, it would be easy to add a hyperlink formula to jump across to another sheet, but that’s just part of what’s needed. In this example we need to link in the context of the selected KPI, otherwise we would need a separate sheet for product detail on each KPI, far from ideal, especially in row-dynamic reports.

This type of limitation is one reason why you’ll often see workbooks with huge numbers of worksheets, which become unwieldy and horrible to maintain.

We need hyperlink functionality but also an ability to pass parameters (and of course a way for the pivot table to accept the incoming parameter…).

XLCubed makes it straightforward for non-technical users to build this type of contextual linking into reports through the XL3Link() formula.  XL3Link has arguments which determine what is displayed in the cell, where it hyperlinks to, and what cell(s) parameters are passed from and to.

Unlike Pivot tables, XLCubed Grids and formulae can reference cell content as a filter, so the data on the ‘link to’ worksheet can update as soon as a new value is passed into the driving cell, retrieving the relevant data from whichever data source is involved.

The beauty of the approach is its simplicity. It’s something which most users can get to grips with quickly, and opens up huge flexibility in joined up reporting.

Last but not least, web and mobile deployment takes a matter of seconds. The report is published to XLCubed Web and from there browser and mobile app based users have access to the same report with the same chain of thought links. The links can be to different content in the same report, to a separate report, or a url to another application or website.

 

(This piece revisits content from our blog  from several years back the missing link part 1   . The business requirement it addresses is now even more common, and still one not handled in native Excel.)

How to gauge data through charts – Creating Gauge Charts

A common question that comes up in support for XL Cubed is how to add charts that look like a dial, or a gauge. Something like the below:

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These are actually very easy to make and publish to the web, plus they have the further bonus of adding something different to make your reports look more professional.

Once you have your data ready, add a new doughnut chart and configure it to show the information you want it to.

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This will give you a simple doughnut chart.

 

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Next up, pick the cell that contains the information you want to show in the middle of the doughnut chart and reference it in another cell. For example, in the below example we have the two numbers that make up our doughnut chart in cells B3 and B4. Cell E3 contains the information we want to show in the middle of the doughnut chart.

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As you can see, the formatting is different in E3 to the other cells. This is because we have formatted the cell to show the data how we want it to appear in the chart.

Once we are at this stage, it is just a case of transferring the number to the middle of the doughnut chart. You can do this by selecting the formatted cell, in our case E3, copying it and then paste special as a ‘Linked Picture’ anywhere in the worksheet (we will move it into the chart in the next step).

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The ‘Linked Picture’ appears as a cell but it actually acts like a picture so, lastly, move the picture into the middle of the doughnut chart so it looks how you want it, then, right click on the new picture and select ‘Send to Back’

 

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As the cell is a ‘Linked Picture’ Any changes you make to the cell you copied, formatting or data, will update the image.

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Your Gauge Chart is complete! These charts also look good when published to the web.

 

Excel BI myths debunked – #6: No report sharing & distribution

Here we continue our theme on the myths which get propagated about Excel based BI. The next argument is that Excel BI cannot handle widespread report sharing and distribution. Base case we actually agree with this one, and that’s why we invested in developing XLCubed Web Edition specifically to address it.

Understandably, sharing an Excel workbook around hundreds or thousands of users is not something which many companies will consider. A web based distribution approach is much lighter and easier to manage. The drawback is that most web based report design environments lack the flexibility and latent user skill base of Excel. XLCubed provides a simple way to push data-connected reports developed in Excel to a portal based environment, where report consumers don’t require any software installed locally, other than a browser. The reports can also be accessed interactively through our native mobile apps for Apple, Android and Windows phone 8.

XLCubed Web is self-sufficient and does not require SharePoint. For customers with SharePoint and keen to retain it as a centralised environment – no problem, XLCubed Web can integrate so tightly within SharePoint the end users won’t even know it’s there.

Excel based users can become web and mobile report designers in minutes. XLCubed uses Excel as a key part of the BI solution rather than as the entire BI solution, and it’s that which allows us to address the sharing problem, along with the other myths we have identified in this blog series.

 from any version of Excel:

ipxl

…to web…

ipwb

…to mobile.

ipip

Some Excel BI myths debunked: #3 – limited dashboards

#3: Limited and difficult to Maintain Dashboards

Third on our list of common criticisms of Excel focused BI, is the limitations of Excel Dashboards.

“Excel dashboards are ugly, limited, and inflexible…”

It’s possible to build a truly awful dashboard in pretty much any dashboard tool. No tool is magic, ignoring the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver of course, and if you make bad design choices when building a dashboard the end result can be a mess. Similarly you can build a pretty decent dashboard in most tools. So even in base Excel with no additional software you can build a dashboard which looks good, and many people do.

In native Excel there are undoubtedly some limitations around the available chart types, and the handling of dynamic charting. However you do have the benefit of very fine grain control over the layout and positioning of tables and charts. The camera object also lets you break out of the fixed column width which is sometimes seen as a limitation.

XLCubed extends the core charts available in Excel with a rich library of in-cell charts, small multiple/trellis charting, mapping and TreeMaps. It means you can deliver more in Excel visually, rather than have to leave the environment totally. Dashboards mean different things to different people, for some a dashboard can be a table with a chart, but most contain significantly more than that. The example below uses a mixture of native Excel charting and XLCubed in-cell charts.

FinanceSShot

It’s based around a sample personal finance data set, and brings a lot of information together in hopefully a visually appealing and effective way.  If you want to build a highly formatted and relatively densely populated dashboard like this, it’s going to take more than a few minutes in any tool, no matter what the marketing says. In reality you’ll most likely struggle to get the exact layout in a widget based dashboard tool as you lose some of the fine-grain control over table and chart sizing which you have in Excel.

Dashboards can be fundamentally simpler than the first example, but require more specialised chart types like the example below. In this case it’s a dashboard built in XLCubed Excel Edition and published to the Web, looking at fuel pricing for a downstream oil company (fictitious data). It’s a ranked table of data for a selected county in Florida, and is then using an extended boxplot to display the price distribution in the market, and a map to show the Revenues and Volumes geographically.

RampMap

One major issue with Excel dashboards can be the maintenance. If it’s an Excel-only dashboard, bringing in the new data, and checking all the links can be a time consuming process. In an XLCubed environment the cube is updated behind the scenes and the next time you open the report you’ll get the updated data, the ongoing burden of maintenance is largely removed.

So in summary, Excel when well used, is a very good dashboard tool, and XLCubed extends the capability further still in terms of available chart types, flexibility and maintenance.

Some Excel BI myths debunked #2: Inflexible Charting

#2: Inflexible Charting

Continuing our discussion of common criticisms of Excel focused BI, let’s take a look at charting.

“Excel charts are static, inflexible and you need to start from scratch if you want to change them.“

The flipside is that everyone knows how to use them, and in reality many charts in business reporting are in effect static – the numbers being charted change, but the chart layout and number of elements being charted stays the same.

Of course there are cases when charts can vary considerably with the data, or perhaps you would like to be able to drill into more detail on the chart, or to quickly display multiple charts split by one variable. Excel charting can’t handle those scenarios, but XLCubed caters for it through Small Multiples.  The example below depicts river water quality in different regions of England. It could be built in native Excel, but would be a painful and time consuming process. With XLCubed it’s a drag and drop process in our small multiple designer.

waterqualitysmalt

If the number of regions being reported changes, the number of charts being plotted will automatically stay in sync, and there is a direct data connection rather than having to maintain Excel ranges etc.

Sometimes with charting small is beautiful. Perhaps we just want the key numbers with a Sparkline alongside, or a bullet graph or bar chart to display actual to target. Native Excel 2010 and 2013 can handle the Sparkline, but not the ability to then drill the report and have the Sparklines extend, and there is also the issue of needing to bring the data itself into Excel before charting it.

XLCubed Grids can contain dynamic in-cell charts which build the charts as part of the query, and as such are drillable and remove the need to maintain a data range in Excel as shown below.

DrillIncell

So XLCubed brings the type of dynamic charting being described to Excel, and provides a simple web and mobile deployment option.

 

 

Some Excel BI myths debunked

“Excel: Great hammer, lousy screwdriver’”

When evaluating BI tools, many of our customers are hit by marketing messages about the limitations and woes of Excel. One white paper we were pointed to is Tableau’s ‘Excel: Great hammer, lousy screwdriver’. It contains 5 key points concerning Excel limitations for BI which we’ll take a look at over the next few weeks, along with a few others which we hear frequently.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”

We fully appreciate that Excel isn’t perfect for all needs, but XLCubed chooses to address the weaknesses and embrace the very significant strengths, rather than throwing everything away.

XLCubed helps users get most value and benefit from Microsoft’s Analysis Services platform by taking the best of Excel, and extending that with an optimised query and reporting environment which lets them do more, and do it more quickly. Excel becomes a very flexible presentation layer, and Analysis Services removes the scalability and data integrity issues.

Let’s take a look at some of the key Excel objections raised, with #2 to follow next week:

#1) Limited data volumes

“Excel only handles 1 million rows – that’s not nearly enough for my business”

The advent of Big data makes everyone think of huge data volumes. In reality if you’re looking at core Financial reporting a million rows may well be more than enough but that’s not the point: for sales and operational reporting over several years a million rows won’t come close.  Big Data is partly around volumes, but also concerns the data structure. These days the challenge of big data isn’t the ability to store it, it’s the ability to do something useful with it.  And doing something useful with it isn’t creating reports which run to a million rows.

We see Excel as a presentation layer, not as a database. While Power Pivot muddies that argument a little, very few people see Power Pivot models as a central repository for Corporate data. XLCubed is a client front end tool for SQL Server Analysis Services (which  laughs at 1 million rows). 1 million new rows per day over several years is starting to ramp up the volume, but the technology is designed to scale, and to scale on significantly less expensive hardware than in-memory technologies (of which Analysis Services 2012 of course now has its own player with xVelocity).

So while Excel and hence XLCubed can only display 1 million rows at a time, the underlying cubes can run to billions of rows. XLCubed gives the user flexible and fast filtering and ranking capabilities, simple ways to leverage the cube hierarchies, and effective data visualisation techniques to let you work with these large volumes of data.

Aside from that, if someone wants a report (a report!) which is a million rows long, our first question is always ‘and can you show me how you use that report?’.  If you print it you’ll get around 25,000 pages of deforestation. By comparison Tolstoy’s War and Peace is  around 1,400 pages in most print editions… We believe there is a lot to be said for a combination of top-down reporting, and ranking and filtering to make that type of data volume useful rather than burdensome.

So in summary, when you’re using XLCubed and the Microsoft BI stack, more than a million rows of data is really not a limitation (though if you put a million rows in the report you’re creating your own limitation in terms of its usefulness).

Rolling Forecast reporting in Excel

In monthly reporting for the current year the most pertinent numbers for closed periods are the actuals, and for open or future months the forecast. In most cubes actual and forecast (or budget) are implemented as either different measures, or as part of a scenario hierarchy. This can lead to challenges in reporting, where putting both the period and the actual/forecast on the same axis means you will get duplicated months which show the forecast for periods when the actuals are already in as in the PivotTable below.

 

 RP10

We would want the report to be asymmetric (i.e. different months returned for Actual and Budget). Various tools can handle that, and it’s always been possible to achieve that in XLCubed through formulae or in a grid. What’s more difficult is to make the report fully dynamic without the need to redesign it each time. Ideally we’d want the user to be able to change a slicer to select the last completed month (or pick this up directly from the cube), and have the appropriate months reported under Actual and Budget.  Here’s how to achieve it in one grid…..

The approach uses a combination of:

  • Excel Ranges to determine the available months, and which are for Actual and Budget
  • An XLCubed Slicer to pick the ‘Last Actuals’
  • One XLCubed grid with the ‘Exclude from display’ pointing to the relevant ranges above

Let’s work through this example which uses the Finance cube on the AdventureWorks DW 2008R2 database.

We’re going to use data from FY 2006 and report Actual and Budget figures across departments.  We will use a slicer to select the last Actual month we want reported.  For the remaining FY 2006 months we will report Budget values.

Entire year of Months in the report

There are several ways to achieve this – we added an XLCubed Excel driven slicer (XLCubed – Slicer – Excel) based on the range $AA$1:$AB$12 as shown below, containing all months in FY 2006. This lets the user pick the last month for which we want to report Actuals.

 

RP1

RP3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slicer is set to output its selection into $B$1.  In $C$1 the formula =VALUE(B1) converts the text output of the slicer into a number which we’ll use to calculate which months should report Actual and which Budget, see the screenshot below:

RP2

 

 

 

 

Date Table

This is an Excel range supporting the reporting logic. Row 2 contains every month in the reporting year. Row 3 assigns an incremental number to each month, 1-12.

We can then compare the value of the selected month from the slicer ($C$1) with the value for each month. Basically if the month is less than or equal to the selected last actuals month it should be reported as Actuals, otherwise as Budget.  An example formula contained in B4 for Actuals would be: =IF(B3<=$C$1,B2,””) . For the Budget row the formula has the inverse logic.

At this stage we’ve used a little XLCubed, and the flexibility of Excel to match the appropriate months to Actual and Budget. We now need to add the report itself.

We’ll create our grid – initially we set it up to report Budget and Actual figures across the year, by basing the selection for Date.Fiscal on the range containing all months for the year ( $B$2:$M$2).

We then use XLCubed’s right-click menu (Keep – Exclude From Display) to exclude members.  It doesn’t matter which slices are excluded at this point. To do this highlight ‘Actual’, followed by the first available month and then choose Exclude From Display. Repeat this for ‘Budget’ and the first available month.  We will exclude July 2005 for Actuals and August 2005 for Budget.  You will notice the red comment marker on the grid. Right-click on this cell and choose Axis – Edit, and go to the Excluded Slices tab.

RP6 RP7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above screenshots show that we are currently excluding July 2005 from Actual as well as August 2005 from Budget.

We can then easily change the Date Fiscal selection for each scenario.  For Budget we will exclude Budget values for months in cell locations $B$4:$M$4 (as we want to report Actuals for those entries) and Actuals values for the months in cell locations $B$5:$M$5 (as we want to report Budgets for those entries).

RP8

The grid report now looks like this with Actuals being reported up to November 2005 and Budgeted for the remainder of FY 2006:

RP5

We have also set Merge Repeating Cells on (in Grid Properties).  You could do further formatting – for example by colour filling all Budget values and hiding the grid headers.

RP9

The end result is a one grid report giving the Actual:Budget month mix that we want with the monthly maintenance process a case of simply changing a combo box selection.

 

 

Creating rounded corners in Excel – revisited

Today we’re revisiting one of our more popular guides, Creating rounded corners in Excel Tables, and have updated it for v7.1. When Igor Asselbergs was contemplating the value of round corners in design, he came to the conclusion that in many cases they added real value to the user experience.

The effect can be explained by the Gestalt Law of ContinuityGestalt is a set of rules based on research into perception psychology, and a very powerful tool for Excel table design. In table design this effect can help us to see the table columns as a unit.

The previous process to create rounded corners in Excel tables required quite a bit of persistence and patience. In Version 7.1, we’ve introduced a feature to enable adding rounded corners in a few seconds rather than several minutes, so while the theory is identical the implementation is much improved. Take this report showing sales KPIs, where we would like to add rounded corners to the header row in the table.

To do this we first highlight the required area:


Then we go to Extras -> Add/Edit Round Corners:


The Colours and Border thickness will be picked up from the selected cells. Select the corners to be made round (in this case the Top Left and Top Right corners):


Click OK to apply the borders

 

To edit existing corners which were created by XLCubed then you can just highlight the cell or range and Go to Extras -> Add/Edit Round Corners. The changes will be applied to the existing corners (or the corners can be removed by unselecting them).

It’s a simple addition to the product which would have saved us quite a bit of time in customer implementations over the years, and hopefully now does the same for our users.

A snappy fix for layout problems in Excel

Have you ever tried copying parts of one workbook to another and been restricted by column widths?  Or maybe you’re almost done with a report layout only to find that the last table you need to add has 4 columns, where there is only room for 3?  Today we’re going to show you how to use Excel’s Camera tool to get around any Excel column width limitations to achieve your dashboard goals!  Here we have an Excel heat Map on a separate sheet in our workbook.

It has been inserted into the dashboard below where the first thing to notice is the workbook’s  variable column widths, in particular columns J and K.  If we had just inserted our heat map as it was, the column widths in our dashboard would determine the width size of the heatmap.    Instead we used Excel’s camera tool to insert our heatmap sized at exactly what we wanted, regardless of the destination sheet’s column widths.

 

We follow these simple steps:

  • select  the heat map in the source sheet
  • click the Camera Tool icon
  •  navigate to the destination sheet
  • click and insert exactly where you want

The Excel Camera Tool is also a great way creating dynamic screenshots of particular groups of data.  The Camera Tool takes a picture of a selected area, and you can then paste that picture wherever you want it. It updates automatically, and because it is a picture rather than a set of links to the original cells, any formatting or data change in the source is automatically reflected in the picture.

The heat map chart source figures have been updated to show Europe’s higher sales – as you can see Europe now has the greater sales:

 

The dashboard heat map has updated automatically to reflect this value change.

 If you can’t see the Camera Tool on your Excel menu you can easily attach it to your Quick Access Toolbar by performing the following steps:

  • Click the File Tab
  • Click Options
  • Choose the Quick Access Toolbar Option
  • In the ‘Choose Command From’ dropdown, select Commands not in Ribbon
  • Find the Camera Tool from the alphabetical list of commands and add it to the Quick Access Toolbar.

Creating tree-view slicers in v7


XLCubed has always provided a tree view selector to let users chose items from different levels in a hierarchy.   Previously, however, it was only possible to do this directly from a cube-based hierarchy. With the extension of our SQL reporting capability in V7 we found a few scenarios where we wanted to create tree views from non-cube data. This can be easily achieved in Version 7 by using a slicer sourced from an Excel range.  This can then be used to drive reports sourcing data from cubes, Tabular models, or SQL as required.

You can also use this method to allow users to choose items from an amended structure of a hierarchy or a limited part of a cube hierarchy and this is what our example below shows:

As you can see we’re going with a food-based theme.  This Excel range needs to be in a specific format and so we have our list of slicer choices with the three required columns: key, value and depth.

Here are the slicer choices at the different levels of the hierarchy:

 

We’re happy with our list so from the XLCubed tab let’s select Slicer and then Excel which allows us to insert a slicer based on the data in our workbook.

 

 

At this window we need to tell the slicer where to find the data (slicer range) in our workbook and the slicer type – in our case a tree view.

 

In our example we are also giving the slicer a name ‘Food and Drink Slicer’  as well as instructing it to write the slicer selection to cell location $J$19.

The resulting slicer looks like this and the user’s choice can then be used to drive any report, ranging from cube-based grids to DAX and SQL tables.