Dashboard Designs: Dynamic Cards

Dashboard cards are a great way to group related data and make key information more accessible. The flexibility of Excel and XLCubed means there are a number of ways you might choose the incorporate a card-based design into your dashboards. In this blog we will consider one way to do this using XLCubed dashboard sheets and paged viewports.

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Dashboard Designs: Responsive Navigation Bars

Many would believe that Excel is a static environment and not suited for making responsive mobile reports. XLCubed users know better. With XLCubed’s Dashboard Designer, it is possible to create dashboards that are not only interactive and data-connected, but also responsive to fit any device.

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User control of dashboard layouts

Dashboard sheets were introduced with V9, primarily as a way to deliver mobile-friendly reporting with a responsive UI to auto-fit any screen size. Specific Targets which define the layout can be defined to optimise the layout for different devices and are automatically applied depending on the device type.

Another use-case which is less obvious but can also be very useful is to allow users to choose between a number of predefined layouts.

For example, on a specific report there may be just 3 or 4 slicers which are typically used, but occasionally users may need access to a much larger list of slicers to filter by. It would be a shame to clutter the report for everyone permanently with all the slicers as it makes the selection process less intuitive, and probably forces us to use only combo boxes to save space. Ideally we’d like users to be able to switch from a ‘Quick Slicer’ view to an ‘All slicer’ view.

Another example would be where users want to include additional dashboard items, or remove items to get a larger view of a data table.

These scenarios and others can be handled by giving users control over which Dashboard Target is active via a slicer.

In the example shown below the button slicer allows switching between a ‘Quick slicer’ view with the 3 primary slicers shown as list boxes, an ‘All Slicer’ view with all 9 slicers available as combo boxes, and a ‘Table View’ which maximises the space for the data table and removes the charts.


So how do I…?

Firstly, you’ll need to define the various Targets which you want the user to choose between (see here for the details).

Next you need to add a slicer allowing the user to select between Target layouts. This slicer will be based on an Excel range, and will output its selection to another cell which you specify. It’s easiest if the input range for the slicer exactly matches your Dashboard Target Names (otherwise you can use vlookups to cross-match). Of course you’ll need to enable that slicer on each of the targets to allow the users to switch views.

Finally, we can use the XL3SetProperty() formula to set the active Target for the dashboard, based on the output of the slicer we just set up. The syntax is:

XL3SetProperty(Object Type, Object Name, Property to set, value to set the property to)

The screenshot above shows the slicer and formula setup – hope it proves useful for some of you!

Workbook slicers – all for one and one for all!

So this is our second blog on the new features of XLCubed v8 – today we’re going to run through workbook slicers.

Workbook slicers allow the user to create the slicers at the workbook level so that they can be displayed for any/all sheets.

There’s a slicer pane which can be arranged horizontally or vertically and stays in place when you navigate to another sheet.  This means that if you have a multi-sheet workbook you only need to define one set of slicers.  These can then configured to be shown or hidden for individual sheets as required.

Turn the slicer pane on by selecting Workbook slicers from the XLCubed ribbon, Slicers tab:

 

ws1

Within the slicer pane there’s an Add Slicer button – this brings up the standard design form for adding slicers.

The Edit layout button brings up the window below.  It allows you to configure the order in which slicers will appear on the pane, which sheets they will be visible on and the padding between individual slicers.  You can also set a background fill colour from here.

ws2

The screenshot above shows that the Date.Calendar slicer is available on a number of sheets.  Selecting a slicer choice on one sheet will refresh the other sheets where the slicer is also available:

ws7

Once added, you link workbook slicers to your report in the same way as embedded slicers.  You can link directly to grids and other XLCubed objects and output their selection to Excel cell locations for use by formulae.

Their positioning on the web is fixed but if you find the slicers are taking up too much screen space you can make your slicer selections and then use this icon to toggle the Slicer Pane off:

ws4

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.

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.

MemberNav

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:

=XL3MemberNavigate(1,”[Date].[Calendar]”,”[Date].[Calendar].[Month]”,”LastMember”)

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.

 

Bandlines in XLCubed

In early January this year Stephen Few introduced the concept of Bandlines. He identified a useful extension to Sparklines, making use of shaded or coloured horizontal bands to provide more information on the context of the trend line itself. See Stephen’s article on Bandlines and the thinking behind them for a detail description.

The Sparklines are ideal for showing individual trends in a small amount of screen real estate, and we use them extensively in dashboards, typically in a ‘visual table’. By definition Sparklines are small, and to make the trend easily readable, they are typically scaled individually so that each Sparkline uses the whole vertical axis. This means they do not give any impression of the scale of the numbers involved across different rows. It’s possible to use a common scale, and while sometimes that works more often it means many of the rows with smaller values are excessively flattened.

Bandlines address this by introducing horizontal shaded areas depicting the lower, middle and upper quartiles and the median represented by a line. The user can determine the context of the bands. The two most common examples would be plotting recent trend in the context of a longer period, or plotting individual rows in the context of the overall set of data being displayed.

We think Bandlines add real value, so hats off once again to Stephen, and we’re pleased to say that Bandlines are now available in the current version of XLCubed (see here for more detail).

The screenshots below show two examples, displayed in two colour schemes.

 

Bandlines3

The charts depict historic margin by store. The ‘Banding across all stores’ charts show the 30-day trend for the individual store, set in the quartile context of the data for all 11 stores in the table. We can see that for the Gilroy store in row 1, while the margin has varied, it remained in the top quartile when set against all stores for almost the whole period.

The ‘Banding by store, 90 days’ charts show the individual 30 day trend, set in the context of the previous 90 days for the individual store. This helps provide much more historical context, but the line itself still focuses on the more recent trend. Stockton is probably most noteworty here as across the 30 day period it has dropped from the top quartile into the 1st quartile across the whole 90 day period.

We’d love to hear your thoughts (and also which colour scheme works best!), we will also be adding Sparkstrips in the near future so watch this space.

 

 

 

 

XLCubed as an alternative to ProClarity

With the launch of 7.1 of XLCubed Excel Edition we introduced the ability to import ProClarity Briefing Books – with support for ProClarity ending this year and many customers looking for a replacement, now is a great time for us to show you how the import works to help move users from ProClarity to an alternate solution.

Importing

Let’s start with importing from ProClarity, we’ve built a simple example briefing book based on the usual AdventureWorks sample cube, it includes a sample grid:

 

a performance map:

 

and a chart:

 

To get to the import option we load Excel and select XLCubed -> Extras -> Import -> Import ProClarity Briefing book. After selecting the file to import we are given a summary of each item that is going to be imported:

 

At this point you can control the resulting worksheet name, as well as switching the type of XLCubed object you’ll end up with. Clicking “Import” will now give us 1 sheet for each briefing page:

 

You’ll notice that the import process has created any required slicers so the report is good to go. You could now also spend a bit more time adding any extra XLCubed functionality to the report such as Incell charts or Excel calculations to leverage the power of Excel or publish to XLCubedWeb for consumption by a wider audience.

The import process is very straight forward and we have some great feedback from our customers regarding the speed and ease that they have been able to migrate users’ reports into XLCubed.

Look out for some more blogs showing other features of XLCubed that will help users transition from ProClarity!

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.