Category Archives: UI Design

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:


…to web…


…to mobile.


Custom drill paths for Analysis Services reporting

Any business report will answer a predefined set of questions, but it will often give rise to many additional queries and chains of thought as the user wants to explore any oddities or anomalies in more depth.

As a report designer you want to provide flexibility in your reports. You may want to create a customised drill down behaviour which you know is how the report users naturally think of the data. Similarly giving users the ability to ‘drill across’ into other hierarchies is a great way of providing chain of thought interactivity, but the sheer complexity and number of hierarchies in many corporate cubes these days means a vanilla ‘drill across’ may be problematic. In the hands of users relatively unfamiliar with the data model drill across can be a shortcut to a support ticket:

  • What is the difference between hierarchy ‘a’ & hierarchy ‘b’?
  • What is hierarchy ‘c’?
  • When I drill across into hierarchy ‘d’ it hangs?
    • that’ll be the 8 million skus in the attribute hierarchy you’ve picked…

We recently worked closely with a customer to implement a solution in XLCubed v7.6 for exactly these types of issue. Many thanks to Thomas Zeutschler at Henkel AG for the inspiration!

Flex Report extends a concept which Henkel had developed in-house to deliver report level flexibility of the drill path, while retaining control over what the user can do. Non-technical report developers can easily define the drilling behaviour for a report (for example from Country -> Promotion -> Product Category), and also to provide controlled ‘Drill Across’ options where the users have a choice of 5 or 6 meaningful levels to drill into, rather than the 200 which may exist in the cube. The difference in usability can be stark, as in the example below.


The end result is report consumers with guided and controlled flexibility in data exploration. This type of reporting can be delivered from a potentially broad group of business users who have the flexibility to develop sophisticated reporting applications without the need to go back to IT each time they want to create a slightly modified drill path. We are finding that both the deliverable reports and the report development process itself resonates with many businesses. Take a look at this video for an introduction: Flex Reporting

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.


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.


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.


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.


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



Current and Previous month reporting made easy

We’ve all been there. Our shiny new dashboard or report pack is finished and ready to go meet its users.  We’ve presented the key information clearly, we’ve followed all the data vis guidelines on effective charting and use of colour. We like it a lot, and we’ve thought ahead and built in lots of flexibility with slicers and managed drill paths so it can already help answer some of the questions it will doubtless raise.

It’s a little disappointing then that one of the first pieces of feedback is that the senior execs don’t actually want to use the interactivity much. They want to open the dashboard and see the current month picture (or previous month), and don’t want to waste valuable seconds selecting the month in a slicer…

Joking aside, in lots of situations it’s a sensible request, and there are various different ways to handle it in an XLCubed / Analysis Services world. Often this will be for a multi-sheet report incorporating grids, formulae, and charting elements and we need a centralised point to handle the month selection – enter the XL3MemberNavigate() formula.


This lets you pick a hierarchy and a level, and you can specify that you want the Last member (first and previous / next are also available). It’s available in the XLCubed Insert Formula dialog. In our case we’d pick the date hierarchy, the month level and choose Last, generating a formula as below:


The issue is that at this point it has no concept of data, it will give you the last month available in the hierarchy, not the last month with data. However that’s just another parameter away, we can add dimension member pairs to force a data check, as below, where we are checking that data exists for the “Reseller Sales Amount” measure.

=XL3MemberNavigate(1,”[Date].[Calendar]”,”[Date].[Calendar].[Month]”,”LastMember”,0,”[Measures]”,”Reseller Sales Amount”)

So that will return the last month with data, and as we know in XLCubed all grids, formulae and XLCubed charts can be based off a cell. The Xl3MemberNavigate() cell becomes the driver for all time selections in the report. Job done. Or is it? What if you actually wanted the last complete month? :

=XL3MemberNavigate(1,”[Date].[Calendar]”,”[Date].[Calendar].[Month]”,”LastMember”,2,“[Measures]”,”Reseller Sales Amount”)

Adding the addional ‘2’ parameter means it will go back an additional month, hence giving you the last completed month.

In our experience this is far and away the easiest way to handle current or Previous month reporting, and we hope you find it useful if it’s new to you. For more information on XL3MemberNavigate check our wiki.


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.

Olympics Treemap

The 2012 London Olympics have now finished, and as a UK company we were pleased to see the games were such a success, and of course that team GB did so spectacularly well! We’re looking forward now to the Paralympics in a couple of weeks, and once the dust has settled there we’ll be shipping a new point release of XLCubed in September.

We’ll keep most of the changes under wraps for now, but one item which we are introducing is treemaps. The Olympic medal table gives us a nice opportunity to better understand the medal breakdown through the  new chart type. In XLCubed, treemaps can be produced directly from a cube or from a table held in Excel, as is the case here. The first example below shows the medals split by country and sport. The size of the rectangle depicts the total number of medals, and the colour shows the number of gold medals, the darker the colour the more gold. The numeric values list the total number of medals, then the number of golds. We can see the USA at the top, and that over half their medals came from swimming and athletics, with a bigger percentage of golds in the pool.

Any of the countries can be drilled into for a large view on their medal breakdown, not that we’re partisan of course… , but the view below is for Great Britain (GBR) where the particularly good showing by the cycling team stands out.

Taking a look at the same data split first by sport and then country, it’s easy to see the countries dominating the medals in each sport, and to delve into more detail by sport where required.

 Drilling into Athletics we can see that USA won most medals, and also most gold. Great Britain had just the 6 medals, but 4 were gold and hence the darker colour on their tile.

We’ll be making an interactive version of this available over the next few days.



Scott MacCloud Pesents Google Chrome

Scott MacCloud comic writer and expert in visual communication created a set of wonderful, information dense comic pages for Google’s new web browser Google Chrome. He presents on 38 pages the technical concepts behind Google Chrome so that even a layman can understand them.


Regarding Google Chrome I found an interesting article over at the Cooper Journal, where Tim wrote that Google Chrome exists, contrary to the believe of the computer press, for one reason: To provide a framework for web-based applications to look, feel, and act like desktop applications. I can’t wait to see the end of the area of crippled web interfaces.

I really can recommend you to add Scott MacCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics to you data visualization book shelf. A very inspiring book that explains the inner workings of comics and visual communication in general, and most of the insights apply for the design of visual interfaces, usability and data visualization:

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Microsoft, Pimp Down My Ribbon

There has been a lot of criticism regarding Excel 2007, particularly about the new chart engine, the UI inconsistencies and the Ribbon. Jorge yesterday concluded that Excel 2007 is Useless and Jon wrote a comprehensive analysis about Changes to Charting in Excel 2007 where he expressed his concerns regarding the new Charting. In 2006 Stephen Few reviewed Excel 2007 charting and concluded Excel 2007 charting Preview of an Opportunity Missed. Charley Kyd did a survey about How Do Business Users Like the Ribbon and came back with the result that about 56% of all respondents had a negative opinion about the Ribbon

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