Microsoft Excel’s Idea of Visual Data Analysis

No software product is used more than Microsoft Excel for the analysis and presentation of quantitative data. While its use is prolific, and it does some things very well, its charting functionality is rather sad. The charts feature dazzling visual effects that are perhaps useful for marketing, but you can only use them to present data effectively with discouraging effort. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that you can use Excel to present data effectively, but within severe limits, and only if you’re willing to work around its problems. To say it can be used for visual data analysis, however, is a stretch that exceeds its reach. To date, Excel is at best an infant in the world of visual data analysis, barely able to roll over.

Those of you who are familiar with visual data analysis and what good software does to support it will find Microsoft’s notion of visual data analysis entertaining. I invite you to watch Microsoft’s demo and let me know what you think of it. I suspect that the folks at Microsoft Research who understand information visualization must look at this and cringe.

Take care,

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17 Comments on “Microsoft Excel’s Idea of Visual Data Analysis”


By Michael Gaffney. June 3rd, 2007 at 10:10 pm

I just watched the demo, and I have to admit, words escape me right now so let me just say, wow!

There are so many really bad quotes from the demo worthy of laughter, but here’s my favorite: “A pie chart is a good way to show vendor sales for a single month.”

Sad. Just plain sad.

By David Harper. June 4th, 2007 at 12:49 pm

Stephen,

For those of us temporarily “stuck” with MS Excel, do you have a favorite add-on/tool that helps create better infoViz?

Although, maybe it is becoming a little bit moot, the new Excel 2007 is really handy on XML integration; e.g., i’ve been able to easily export Excel XML for import into Flash, so you can do that with any XML-enabled tool. But still a native excel add-in that does better charting would be nice

By Andy Hudson. June 5th, 2007 at 7:47 am

Oooh look at the pretty colours - Yuck!

I have to agree with Michael - what Microsoft is demonstrating is absolutely appalling. Given Excel’s place in millions of offices across the world, it only serves to increase the difficulty that end users will have in deriving useful information, not to mention encouraging users to create visual atrocities such as the cylindrical stack graph. Microsoft should be ashamed of itself!

By Dan Meyers. June 5th, 2007 at 2:42 pm

You mean that Excel is not the end all be all of desktop applications that can do anything you need it to do! —- Excel definitley has its place but this is not it.

I also watched the demo and I doubt that the guys doing the demo have ever read this blog.

By Zach. June 6th, 2007 at 10:55 am

Here’s my favorite quote: “I can even rotate the 3D chart for a better view” as the demo narrator changes the default odd-angle view to a straight on view of a 3D chart. Hmmm, why not start with the better view?

David, check out this Excel add-in that cleans up the hideous default charts.

By Andrew Mac. June 13th, 2007 at 1:13 am

The quote Mr Tufte “Making an evidence presentation is a moral as well as intellectual activity”

Microsoft now provide more tools to be intellectually dishonest and have have shown little intellect in apply good design principles. I wait with anticipation of sitting in presentations or conferences and sniggering when seeing new levels of poor design and even lower levels of moral integrity in presenting information

By Stephen Few. June 14th, 2007 at 10:58 am

I inadvertently deleted a question from Dan Meyers, which deserves a response. Dan asked, “What do you think of Dundas? Microsoft has licensed Dundas visualizations for SQL Server 2008.”

I don’t have a high opinion of Dundas’ software. I can say, however, that it might be a good fit for Microsoft, because it exhibits that same emphasis on flashy charting effects that actually undermine effective presentation. You can see for yourself by taking a look at Dundas’ chart gallery.

I was contacted independently by Dundas’ CEO and the Director of Marketing last October. They both proposed ways that we might collaborate. In response, I included the following comment:

Based on what I’ve seen on your website in the past, your data visualizations exhibit many of the problems that I warn against (flashy but data-poor gauges, gratuitous three-dimensionality, etc.). Based on what you know of my work, do you have reason to believe that our efforts are compatible?”

I haven’t seen anything since that has led me to reconsider.

By Jon Peltier. June 16th, 2007 at 6:53 am

The video and all of the materials on Microsoft’s web site show that they do not understand good information presentation, though they’re pretty good at marketing flash and hype. In fairness to Excel, its capabilities and flexibility are such that you can override the defaults, and create decent examples of effective information display without having to spend lots of money on add-ons or replacement graphics packages. You might have to work at it a bit, and hijack some charting features to do the job of missing ones, but some of us have made a lot of effort to design workarounds, and you can find some good examples on our websites or via Google.

By Dan Frost. June 25th, 2007 at 3:15 pm

Stephen, I think it’s unfair to characterize Excel’s capabilities so negatively. Have you seen the so called top-tier (Hyperion, Business Objects, Cognos) BI applications and their charting capabilities? I’ve worked with all of them and I must say that by comparison Excel’s charting is much much better. I know you represent the ideal, but let’s put it in context of what’s out there, please.

By Richard Giambrone. June 26th, 2007 at 11:54 am

The best recommendation I can give for trying to use Excel for visual data analysis is to know what you want to do, be really good with Pivot Tables, create static data sets, and then consult John Walkenbach’s Excel Charts. His book will enable you to overcome many of Excel’s charting annoyances and limitations. But you’re still doing a work-around.

By Chris. June 26th, 2007 at 12:25 pm

Who exactly were they pitching this to? If they want the marketing department to say “this makes cool graphs” then they might have a sale, but I wonder who else could be impressed by this show. On the bright side, the video was quite professionally made, and the sound was good. I like the use of the white background, but I am not sure why they had the grid lines turned on. I would speculate that one can make good graphs with MS Excel 2007, but you need to hack your way through the thicket of orange-headered tables and chartjunk to get there.

By Al. June 26th, 2007 at 12:30 pm

It is easy to Microsoft bash. How about suggesting great alternatives if you know of some?

By Charley Kyd. June 26th, 2007 at 5:47 pm

For years, Excel has been an outstanding tool for BI, BPM, and dashboard reporting … particularly when it’s linked to an “Excel-friendly OLAP.”

Unfortunately, many key people at Microsoft fail to understand *why* it’s such a great tool for these purposes. As a consequence, they create “features” and promote “benefits” of little value…as illustrated by that video.

(Any presentation that begins a sentence with, “A pie chart is a good way to…” can not be taken seriously.)

Many Microsofties are trying to turn Excel users’ workhorse into a show horse, and many IT managers are trying to turn it into a dead horse. As both groups succeed, Excel users — and their companies — will suffer.

By Stephen Few. June 27th, 2007 at 1:13 pm

Al,

In response to your question, I would be happy to suggest alternatives to Microsoft’s data visualization capabilities, but you might want to browse the many articles and blog topics in which I have already proposed alternatives for a range of data visualization needs. If you would rather not take the time to see what I have already written, please describe what you would like to accomplish and I would be happy to suggest software that you might want to consider.

Regarding Microsoft bashing, I critique data visualizating software in general, and don’t hesitate to point out problems in any vendor’s products. If you read my work, you will see that this is the case. In fact, I have pointed out problems in the software of certain other vendors much more often than I have done so regarding Microsoft. I tend to respond to press releases and other forms of marketing when they make claims about the the visualization capabilities of their software that are not accurate or that promote bad practices. In this particular case, I responded to the release of Microsoft’s video about the company’s visual analysis vision.

You might be interested in knowing that there are good folks at Microsoft who agree with my perspective and are working desperately to get the company to adopt a better understanding of data visualization and better practices.

Steve

By Jeff Carpenter. June 28th, 2007 at 4:46 am

Microsoft Excel puts a lot of effort into allowing the user to easily change their visual style. These features are powerful, intuitive and fun to use. As noted here, a side effect of this usability is that it places too much emphasis on form rather than function. If Microsoft had put the same amount of effort into helping the user convey a clear message by focusing on the content of their graph, they might have a very powerful tool.

A successful data visualization product should leverage intuitive controls for building graphs that interactively aid the user in clearly communicating the right message. Such a tool should help eliminate bias that results from choosing the wrong visualization.

Imagine those annoying popup Help windows in Office that ask you, “Looks like you’re trying to write a letter…”. Now imagine them being put to good use by including suggestions about choosing the right graph and containing the wisdom of Stephen Few and other experts.

For the most part, there are people who use ubiquitous graphing tools like Excel and Dundas and there are people who’ve read Steve’s books. The question is,”How to we converge the two?”

This is the answer Dudnas didn’t have.

By Charles Caldwell. July 6th, 2007 at 6:47 am

I think I’m in Charley Kyd’s camp on this one. Like any demo, this one was put together by media folks in marketing. And it is meant to reach the largest audience. As cool as I think cognitive science and visual presentation of information is, we are far from the largest audience.

But the reality, as with anything, is that the demo aimed at the target demographic holds no real bearing on what the tool can (or more importantly in this case) cannot do. The current default charting is horrific in Excel. And Excel offers plenty of options to add gradients and graphics and otherwise bedazzle your data.

Sure, we’d prefer to see other capabilities being built in to the most ubiquitous data analysis tool out there. But I don’t really fault Microsoft for giving more rope to folks who are already hanging themselves.

By Mohammad Samaha. March 6th, 2008 at 8:29 am

Hello,

There is a new amazing software for visual data analysis called Tableau. you can view a demo on http://www.tableausoftware.com

thanks
Mohammad Samaha
Dubai - UAE