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 support@xlcubed.com.

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.

Heatmap Tables with Excel – Revisited

We’ve revisited one of our more popular guides Heatmap Tables with Excel as they can be a very effective way of presenting data on a dashboard, and have now updated it for Excel 2010…

This Heatmap Table is designed to show you the revenues and the discounts of a company over the course of one year per product group. The size of a bubble shows the revenue made in a particular month and the bubble color shows the discount rate given. The discount rate has been encoded as a range of green colors, ranging from a light green, for low discounts to a dark green for high discounts. The years and product totals are shown at the right and bottom as an integrated part of the table.

Tufte often talks about the integration of numbers, images and words; I think he’s quite right. A way to achieve this in Excel is to integrate charts into tables, so called graphical tables, a very effective means to show “More Information Per Pixel“.

The heatmap table is based on a regular Excel bubble chart. To integrate a bubble chart into a table the bubbles are positioned in a matrix that has the same row and column layout as our table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our case we generate a data series table with one column for the X-Series going from 1-12 for January – December and one column for our Y-Series going from 1-8 for our 8 product groups and one column for revenue.

In the sample spreadsheet we’ve setup some simple excel formula to translate data from the classic grid layout:

to the required format:

Now we can insert the bubble chart:

 

To ensure that the charts fit exactly into the table grid we set Min/Max for the X axis to 0.5/12.5 and for the Y axis to 0.5/8.5. Excel would calculate much larger auto scales otherwise. Also set the Major units to 1 so we can use that later to set some grid lines.

 

Now we remove the legend, the X and Y axis, maximize the plot area and align the chart with the Excel table. As the bubbles are initially too large we have to make them smaller. To control the bubble size go to Data Series Options and scale the bubble size to 50%:

 

This already makes a nice bubble table you could use to reproduce the Twitter Charts.

For the grid lines format your table headers and grid lines with light gray grid lines. Resize the plot area, remove the border and re-position the chart so that the chart and the table grid lines align.

To create the heatmap with different colored bubbles we use the fact that by default Excel does not plot data points for #NA values.  For the heatmap we overlay 8 bubble series, one  series per green shade, and show a revenue bubble only if the value fits into the value range that corresponds with a green shade of our color ramp, otherwise we show #NA.

We divide the range MAX(Discount)..0 into 8 groups to define the colours.

The data series columns use the following formula to test if a discount value corresponds with an interval / colour shade:

=IF(AND($E7>I$6-Step,$E7<=I$6),$D7,NA())

The formula returns the revenue, if the discount values is in the interval defined in the column header I$5.

 

 

Now create the eight data series so that the bubble size refers to the eight columns in the data table:

 

And use the Excel chart styles to pick a colour range – make sure you  remove the border from the chart area.

 

 

And you could use the chart styles to quickly switch between different colours – or customise each series to refine the colors.

You can download a starting point for these files here: HeatmapSample.xlsx. Most of the formulae should adapt to data values that you can feed into the data sheets, including data straight from Analysis Services if using XLCubed grids or formulae.

You can see an interactive version of the Heatmap here – we added a link to some cube data, some Slicers for driving the parameters and then published to XLCubedWeb.

 

 

Flexible time-series graphing from a slicer

We are often asked how to drive a chart from a slicer in XLCubed and how to plot days/months for a month or year. Base case this is fairly straightforward, you can set up a grid which is based on the previous ‘x’ months of a slicer selection for example. The difficulty can be where you want to vary the behaviour depending on which level of the hierarchy the user chooses. This is particularly true where the hierarchy contains semesters or quarters.

The example below shows a technique to handle this complexity and display the chart in a way meaningful to the user in each case. The report is based on a slicer that allows the user to switch between showing the graph data based on quarters, months or days.

You can download the Excel spreadsheet that is used in the example here TimeSeriesGraphFromSlicer

This connects to the Adventureworks demo database which ships with Analysis Services.

The diagram below shows the flow of data from each worksheet showing the final result in the sheet Chart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workbook Sheet – Chart

This sheet shows the graph based on the data chosen in slicer above it. This switches the graph data between quarters, months and days depending on the slicer selection.

 

Workbook Sheet – GridForChart

This shows the data that will be graphed, depending on the choice made by the slicer selection. In this example it is months July 2001 – June 2002. FY2002 has been selected by the user (in this example Financial Year 2002 runs from July 2001 – June 2002).

Note that cells A10 – A21 contain the value ‘TRUE’ – these cells contain an XL3RowVisible statement as follows:

=XL3RowVisible(B10<>””)

This statement hides rows with no data so that they are not plotted on the graph.

Workbook Sheet – SlicerToMonthDay

This sheet contains the data that is returned by the choice of the slicer in workbook sheet Chart.

User selects a month

The data will be graphed as days. For example, if the user selects July 2002 then the graph will be displayed with each day in July along the x-axis. These are defined in XLCubed as ‘Children of’ the slicer.

User selects a quarter year

The data will be graphed as months in a three month period. For example, the user selects Q1 FY 2003 and the data displayed is for three months from July 2002 – September 2002 as below. These are defined in XLCubed as ‘Descendants of’ the slicer at month. This will be the same when the user picks year, semester or quarter.

User selects a half-year

The data will be graphed as months in a six-month period. For example, the user selects H1 FY 2003. The screenshot below shows the data that will be graphed.

However, it can be seen that the values Q1 FY 2003 and Q2 FY 2003 should not appear on the graph.

Using the Edit Member functionality it is possible to remove these so that they do not appear as points on the graph.

To do this, edit the Date.Fiscal member and click on Advanced tab.

Click on the drop down next to first member – that member set is the resulting data when the user selects H1 FY 2003 and shows the data that is in cells B10 – B43 in sheet SlicerToMonthDay.

 

The screenshot below shows the data that will be subtracted – it is in effect the actual value selected by the user via the slicer alongside the two Fiscal Semester values Q1 FY 2003 and Q2 FY 2003.

 

The GridForChart sheet now shows just the six months that should be graphed. As explained earlier further manipulation using the XL3RowVisible functionality removes blank rows.

 

The screenshot above shows the graph with six months of data for H1 FY 2003 for months July 2002 – December 2002, and the quarters have been dynamically excluded.

The end result is a flexible time selector where the user can choose dates at different levels in the hierarchy, and will always get a meaningful and in-context time series chart.

 

 

Gemini – Smarter Excel Dashboards with End-User BI

I attended beginning this week the Microsoft BI Conference in Seattle where Microsoft presented an interesting new product that might change the way you build your Excel dashboards in the future: “Gemini”, an End-User Business Intelligence plug in for Excel.

End-User Business Intelligence has been around for quite a while with some of the most prominent Applix TM/1 , PALO, PowerOLAP and MIS Alea. These tools where tailored for non-IT proficient Excel users to allow them to build real Business Intelligence solutions with Excel, without leaving Excel or having to learn complicated BI or Data Warehousing techniques. All you have to learn is that a cube is like a very powerful multidimensional spreadsheet that can easily aggregate and hold large amounts of data. To pull out data from the cube you use a formula like this…

=LookupCube(“Sales”, “Units”, “Hats”, “Store 19”, “Oct-2007”)

…returns unit sales information consolidated by product line and region for the month shown. And this formula…

= LookupCube(“Sales”, “Sales USD”, “Hats”, “Store 19”, “Oct-2007 YTD”)

…returns year-to-date sales in US dollars for the same product line and region

Continue reading “Gemini – Smarter Excel Dashboards with End-User BI”

Excel Dashboard Competition: Bank Dashboard

This blog post is the first in a series of blog post that features the winners of the 2008 Excel dashboard competition.

“A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”

Stephen Few, Information Dashboard Design (2006)

The dashboards were judged on the clarity and effectiveness of their design, particularly

  • Clean and clear organization
  • Effective table and chart design
  • A single-screen display, properly designed for the web, screen or print outs

Furthermore we honored the technical aspects of the dashboard, did it use effective (Excel) techniques for

  • The Dashboard layout
  • Data management, pulling data from a database or data warehouses
  • Data logic and calculation : YTD figures, variances, etc….
  • Dashboard delivery: Sharing the dashboard via PDF, the web or as an Excel Workbook

Today we will review the winning entry, Wades Stokes Bank Dashboard:

image


Continue reading “Excel Dashboard Competition: Bank Dashboard”

The Dashboard Squint Test

Before we go and review the 2008 Excel Dashboard Competition Winners I have to make you familiar with  the Dashboard Squint Test.

Software usability experts and web designer use a quite effective way to assess the organization of a web page or a user interface, the so called Squint Test. You squint your eyes and make an assessment on the overall layout, of elements that stand out, the visual balance and other characteristics of an effective user interface.

SquintTestScreen0001

 
This test can be easily extended and applied to dashboards. Squint your eyes and assess the overall layout.

SquintTestScreen0002


Continue reading “The Dashboard Squint Test”

The Missing Link (Part 1)

Every good discipline needs a missing link. Evolutionary biology had a missing link between humans and the ‘lower’ animals. Physics has a missing link between quantum mechanics and general relativity. The Information Visualization community discovered the Missing Link Between Information Visualization and Art.

Now we discovered the missing link in Excel Data Visualization.

As we can see in Wades winning Bank Dashboard we can greatly increase the amount of information that can be included in a dashboard by using sparklines in an overview table

image

 

Continue reading “The Missing Link (Part 1)”

2008 Excel Dashboard Competition Winners

After much deliberation and debate, we are pleased to announce the winners of the 2008 Excel Dashboard Competition. We were impressed by many of the entries, and thanks to all of you who entered. It’s good to see MicroCharts being put to effective use, and adding value in such a variety of business scenarios and sectors. We had entrants from a broad range of industries including Banking, Insurance, Healthcare, Manufacturing, Oil and Gas and Pharmaceuticals.

The winners are:

1) Wade Stokes – Bank Dashboard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Displaying many disparate Banking Key Performance Indicators, and designed as the basis for the Management review of business performance, it truly achieves More Information per Pixel.

2) Jim Uden – Outpatient Surgery Center Dashboard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developed for Meridian Surgical Partners, as a one page snapshot for the review and presentation of partnership level business operations and trends.  Jim also includes probably the best associated description of dashboard content and the thought processes involved which we’ve seen.

3) Hitesh Patel – Pharmaceutical Sales Dashboard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developed by Hitesh Patel and Mike Askew of Data Intelligence, for Bristol Myers Squibb. A key report for the Regional Sales Managers, containing the information required to run the business in terms of cash, growth, share, and competitive performance.

Congratulations to all 3 of our winners. Have a look at our competition page for screenshots and some background on the winning entries. Over the next few weeks we’ll be analyzing the entries in more depth at http://blog.xlcubed.com. We’ll overview each, cover some of the techniques used, and hopefully suggest some further improvements.

Sharing your Excel dashboard: from paper to the web

You have finished your great looking, very efficient Excel dashboard. Now, how do you share it? How do you make sure the users have a timely access to the latest update? This can be a serious issue, specially if you have a more tech oriented audience, and it must be addressed at the planning stage. Let’s browse the available options.

Good old-fashioned paper

For the tech savvy crowd out there this is something that doesn’t even cross their minds. But let’s face it, top managers are among the most computer illiterate groups in our society. If these are your users just handle them a sheet of paper to keep them happy and forget about those cool interactive charts. Make sure that your design accommodates this kind of use.

Since printed paper has a higher resolution than computer monitors you may want to create smaller charts and a more detailed answer to the question the dashboard is supposed to answer. I always wanted to create a dashboard to be printed in a A3 (or 11 x 17) folded sheet. Maybe one of these days… Remember that if you anticipate that users will print your dashboard you must test it for color and B&W printing.

PDF file

Don’t make the mistake of thinking of a PDF file just as an electronic copy of a sheet of paper. User experience is quite different, and you must prepare for it. Users will be able to zoom, pan, add comments, copy a chart to a PowerPoint presentation, etc. Also if, for example, you have a marketing dashboard and it is used for different markets you can set up a simple macro to print a multiple page PDF, and add hyperlink navigation. It is a rich environment and you should take advantage of it.

Email message

You can send your Excel dashboard as an attachment to an email message. This will allow the users to save it locally and, unlike paper or PDF, you can add interaction, like selecting different markets, time periods or regions. Do your best to know what monitor resolutions your users have, and make sure that the users have security level settings that allow them to run macros (if your dashboard needs it). A cool thing to do with macros is to greet the user with the last sales data and open the dashboard with the correct market for that user.

File size and network security can prevent you from sending your dashboard as an attachment. Current file size may be smaller than you are allowed to send, but if the file is likely to grow (because you are adding more data) at some point you’ll not be able to send it. You can zip it but the problem remains, and some network security settings may prevent the users from receiving zip files.

Online / Intranet

If you choose this option the users will have a known location where they can retrieve the latest dashboard version from. You can add some nice touches, like pushing a new version to the user’s computer as soon as he appears online, or automatically send an email when the dashboard is updated (you can do it from the dashboard itself).

Web publishing

Some time ago, I was reviewing a dashboard tool and, although the product was pretty lame, I found that it had a clear advantage over Excel: it could publish dashboards for online access, using Flash technology. This means that it couldn’t manage real-world data sets, but still…

Finding a way to publish online a fully functional Excel dashboard with minimal impact over the way I’m used to do things is something that I’ve been waiting for quite some time. And if you can link the dashboard to the data set, well, that means heaven: you don’t have to open the file, refresh it and save it again.

I was unaware that this functionality even existed until Andreas told me about XLCubed. Last week I was able to install it and start to play with it. I will not tell you that this is a great product (not yet, anyway). But it is a great idea, and my expectations are high. Over the next posts I’ll tell you all about this process of discovery, but just being able to add “web publishing” to your list of options is already remarkable.

Final thoughts

There is not a single best option to deliver your dashboard. It depends on your audience, file size, update frequency, implemented features, information infrastructure… That said, we know that the future belongs to web enabled applications and web delivery. Web publishing would be my personal choice, undoubtedly, but I’d try to help less tech minded users to feel more comfortable (like adding a visible Print button).

I like to create charts and dashboards, and I do my best to find solutions that answer user’s problems. But if I can publish a dashboard without worrying about access and updates, well, don’t try to find me here. There is a tropical island waiting for me.

Data sources for Excel dashboards: avoid spreadsheet hell

This is the first of two twin posts where we’ll discuss the alpha and omega of Excel dashboards: data access and dashboard publication. These are two weak areas in Excel, and they should be approached carefully when planning for a new dashboard. Let’s start by reviewing the available data access options.

Copy / Pasting data

Are you or some one in your organization populating the spreadsheet manually? Or are you copy/pasting the data into the spreadsheet? This is the simplest method of getting data into Excel, but it can be dangerous. It should be avoided when better options are available.

When you are dealing with some kind of structured data management (like you do when you create a dashboard) you have to plan ahead and make sure that when data changes it doesn’t break your well crafted dashboard. Each function, each chart, must know where the data is and adjust for these changes when needed.

When you are pasting data there is a a high risk of break something. The number of rows or columns in the new dataset may change, and things like a time series chart may not recognize the new time periods and probably you’ll have to update references manually. Again, plan carefully or you end up in a maintenance hell.

External table

You can create a link to an external table in Access, Oracle or other database tool via a standard ODBC connection. This will ensure that the data is correctly funneled into the spreadsheet, but with real-world data it is very easy to have more records than the Excel 2003 limit of 65,536 rows. You’ll be better off if you link not to the raw data itself but to a query/view that aggregates the data (one of the basic rules for dashboard design in Excel is to avoid calculations and derivative data; the data should come from the source already prepared to be displayed).

Once the data is in Excel, there is not much difference between this and the previous option. You still need to use use lookup functions to retrieve the data and use it in report tables and charts, and data integrity is a stressful thing that you must ensure all the time. When possible, use database functions like DSUM instead of lookup functions (there will be a post discussing this).

Pivot tables

For an out-of-the-box Excel installation you may want to consider pivot tables. They are an interesting option for smaller datasets and they have a nicely flat initial learning curve. Please note that pivot tables will make your file size much larger because they store all the data in the spreadsheet, so scalability can become a major issue. Also, they work best with a strict hierarchical data structure. If your data doesn’t fit exactly in this concept this may be a problem. If you have a larger dataset you should consider an OLAP cube instead.

OLAP Cubes

The concept of an OLAP cube can be something scary for the average Excel user, but once you start using them you’ll never turn back. Specially of you are using what Charley Kid calls an “Excel-friendly OLAP cube”.

Unlike the other methods, an Excel-friendly OLAP cube (like XLCubed) will not store the data in the spreadsheet, thus eliminating the need for the usual data refreshing methods (open the dashboard, refresh, save and close). The cube is automatically updated and you can query it using formulas similar to GETPIVOTDATA. This makes a huge impact on the way you work. You get all the benefits of a regular pivot table plus several life-saving extras. The dashboard will be simpler, cleaner and easier to maintain.

Final Thoughts

You have several methods for data management in Excel, and you must decide what is the best method for each specific dashboard. Scalability is always an issue, so be sure your data don’t outgrow your chosen method. An Excel-friendly OLAP cube may require some immediate investment but will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

Data management in Excel is a critical factor, and it will discussed in detail in future posts.

The next post discusses the other end of a dashboard project: how to make the dashboard available to the users.