Xcelsius Present – Fast Track to Nowhere

Recently, Business Objects released a new product named Xcelsius Present 2008. They are promoting this new version of Xcelsius as an application that will “make it easy for non-technical users to create interactive data presentations.” This product comes with ten pre-built analytical templates; novices supposedly can just match their data to a template and they’re ready to analyze. For instance, if you need to analyze sales data, you can use the sales data template. For compensation analysis, you can use the human resources template. Perhaps you can see how this sort of cookie-cutter approach, despite its appeal, might fall short. Let’s take a look at one of these templates to see what can happen when a business intelligence software company that focuses on superficial glitz rather than analytical substance makes “one size fits all” templates.

Screenshot of Business Objects' Unemployment Trends Application

Business Objects calls this template “Unemployment Trends.” This title is misleading, however, for trends are discerned through time, but the template only accommodates a snapshot of data from a single point in the year 2007. The employment data comes from a 53 page PDF file filled with tables of numbers, prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s sad is that the original PDF file, with its many tables (one per state) is actually much more useful for data analysis than the analytical application that Business Objects has built. Even though tables can be used for analysis only in limited ways, the Xcelsius application, which claims to apply powerful data visualization, actually limits what can be done. It does this primarily by reducing what can be seen to only a few pieces of information at a time. The act of comparison is the essential task of quantitative data analysis, but with this application you can compare fewer values than you could with the original tables. The benefits of data visualization have been missed entirely.

The application provides a pie chart for comparing the America’s non-institutional population to the civilian labor force and two gauges for comparing employment and unemployment rates. Neither pie charts nor gauges of this type support effective comparisons, and in this case, because of fundamental design problems, comparisons between slices of the pie or the two gauges actually mislead.

The Gauges

Gauges from Unemployment Trends Application

Gauges designed like these are never very useful. They wastefully spread their girth across an extravagant amount of space to report a single number. Because they omit quantitative scales, we can’t compare the employment or unemployment rates based on the positions of the pointer. We don’t even know if they share a common scale. They could start and end at different values—we have no way of telling. Take a moment to see if you can figure out the values that are associated with each of the tick marks. Impossible, isn’t it? We’re forced to read the values printed as text, which we could do more quickly using the original tables.

Besides these problems, there’s another that isn’t obvious unless you review the original data set. Although it seems logical to compare employment and unemployment rates, this isn’t terribly useful because the two measures have been calculated using different methods. In the original report, the employment rate was based on the number of people working compared to those who could be working, including those who aren’t looking for work, including retirees and stay-at-home parents. The unemployment rate, on the other hand, is based on the number of people who are unemployed and looking for work compared to all those who want to work (both those employed and those looking for work). If the employment rate in the above screenshot were calculated the same way as the unemployment rate, it would be 95.4% instead of 63%. While the rates shown in the gauges might be useful, the different ways that they’ve been calculated should be explained so we can compare them appropriately.

The Pie Chart

Pie Chart from Unemployment Trends Application

If you’re familiar with my work, you probably already know that I’m not a fan of pie charts. They require us to compare the areas or angles of slices, but visual perception supports neither well. This particular pie chart, however, fails in an even more fundamental way. I’m not referring to the distracting flag image in the background or the simulated reflection of light on the pie, which almost makes it look like there’s a third, light blue slice. Rather, the problem has to do with two slices are “Non-Institutional Population” and “Civilian Labor Force.” “Non-Institutional Population” represents everyone who could be working, whether they want a job or not, while “Civilian Labor Force” represents those people who either have a job or are actively looking for one. In other words, the “Civilian Labor Force” is a subset of the “Non-Institutional Population”, not a separate segment that combines with it to make up some whole. The 39.77% that appears when I hover my mouse over the red pie slice is meaningless; the correct percentage doesn’t appear anywhere. The following pie chart is an example of one that actually makes sense.

Pie chart displaying part-to-whole relationship correctly

Filter Controls

So far, I’ve focused on problem with the graphs, but the filtering controls exhibit fundamental problems as well. They allow us to select subsets of data such as women between the ages of 55 and 64 years old. Most filtering is done through the following scrolling list box:

Filtering Controls for Unemployment Trends Application

To select a particular set of data, we must click the up or down arrows to scroll through various categories until we find what we want. For instance, to select “Black or African American Women,” we must scroll down to the “Black or African American” section and then select “Women.” If we tried to search for the “Women” section first, we’d fail to find it, because it doesn’t have its own section. We can only make a single selection from available options that combine multiple variables (sex, ethnicity, and age groups). This means we must select from 34 filtering options. Filtering shouldn’t be this difficult or limited. Ideally, separate filters should be available for sex, ethnicity, and age group, perhaps as three groups of check boxes that could be easily turned on or off, independently from one another. For instance, to view Black and Hispanic women of all ages, we would uncheck “Men” in the Sex filter, uncheck all but “Black or African American” and “Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity” in the Ethnicity filter, and leave everything checked in the Age Group filter. Unfortunately, the original tables that the Bureau of Labor Statistics provided in the PDF file don’t support this level of flexibility, but they support much better filtering control than the scrolling list box provides.

In addition to the scrolling list box, this application also allows us to filter by state. To do this, we must go to a separate screen in the application, which looks like this:

Analysis by State Section of Unemployment Trends Application

By clicking one of the states on the map, we can see employment data for that state—at least that’s the plan. Can you find Rhode Island on the map? Let me see if I can make it easier for you. In the image below, I’ve greatly magnified the New England portion of the map.

Close-up of Rhode Island from the Unemployment Trends Application

Rhode Island is the little blue spot that the cursor is pointing at. Even at this level of magnification, it’s almost impossible to see. Imagine how hard it is to click! While the map works alright for large states like California and Texas, it’s worthless for selecting small states like Rhode Island or Delaware. Furthermore, is a map really the best way for people to select at state? It works well enough for selecting familiar states like Florida, but anyone who’s geographically challenged like I am might not be able to pick out Indiana or New Hampshire. The state names appear in tooltips as you hover your mouse around the map, but this forces us to search around for the states with unfamiliar locations. A simple alphabetized list of states would probably work much better.

There’s one more problem with the map that isn’t obvious at first. When we click on a state, it doesn’t refresh the data in the pie chart and gauges as expected. We must also make a selection in the list box filter control (for instance, switching from Men to Women) for the data to update. This is such an obvious bug in the application, it’s hard to imagine how the folks at Business Objects could have missed it. Perhaps they no longer test their software before releasing it.

Basically, this application took a series of Bureau of Labor Statistics tables and transformed them into an unwieldy mess that actually undermines our understanding of employment data.

And Wait…There’s More

Several other analytical applications are packaged with and used as demos for Xcelsius Present, including one shown below for Compensation Analysis.

Screenshot of Compensation Analysis Application

Apparently compensation analysis should be performed using a single pie chart along with a table that reiterates the same values. I encourage you to visit Business Objects’ website to try out the demos of these applications for yourself. I think you’ll find it enlightening, perhaps entertaining, and very, very sad. Be sure to let them know how much you appreciate Xcelsius Present when you’re done looking.

How Should We Respond?

Business Objects is a leading business intelligence vendor (based on sales), but its products consistently demonstrate that they don’t understand analytics and haven’t a clue about data visualization. A vendor that claims to be the best, which Business Objects unabashedly claims (just like every other major BI vendor), should be ashamed of selling such moronic products. Don’t reward them for irresponsible work—products that assume their customers are halfwits—by wasting your money on them. I’m not suggesting that if you use their products, you should necessarily abandon them. I’m suggesting that you stand up and let them know that you deserve better and don’t sit down until they start listening. They dress products up with a thin veneer of flash and no substance and rely on misdirection to sell them to you.

Xcelsius Present's slogan: From Zero to wow in 5 Minutes

Why? In part because, when it comes to analytics, they must not know what they’re doing, but also because they believe this is what you want. “It’s not our fault, we’re just giving them what they asked for”, they reason. It’s time to let them know that they (and many of their competitors as well) are dead wrong. 

Take care,

Signature

51 Comments on “Xcelsius Present – Fast Track to Nowhere”


By Tony. September 2nd, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Makes *me* want to go out and drop $900 or $400 for the upgrade… I would have thought they would have learned from the last version of Xcelsius and built a better product. From my knowledge of Xcelsius and your assessment, it definitely seems like they went significantly backwards.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure what the difference is between Xcelsius Engage 2008 and Xcelsius Present 2008. Xcelsius Present seems like it’s a lite version of Engage, which runs about $900 for the full version. There are some people that swear by Xcelsius and build the heck out of their dashboards using the product.

In my opinion, Xcelsius has a lot of glitz and even more ineffectiveness.

By Jacques Warren. September 3rd, 2008 at 11:35 am

I was waiting for an upgrade for which I paid or when I bought the product last yewar (I someimes have to resort to Xcelsius because the client likes bells and whitles…), and they seem to have just brought over the same bugs and flaws.

I’ve been bugging them about my upgrade, but I’m not so sure I want it now…

By Baatar. September 3rd, 2008 at 6:49 pm

I’ve been told that Xcelsius Present will be retired from the market due to poor customer acceptance. The difference with Engage is that Present only support XLS files as data source, while Preset allows many different sources.

Adding insult to injury, the product was almost useless until BO released SP1 at the end of July. Just pay a visit to SAP/BO Support forums to get a glimpse of customer unrest regarding this shoddy software release.

By Jon Peltier. September 3rd, 2008 at 7:27 pm

I did a project in Xcelsius a few years back for one client. I was frustrated by a couple of things. First, not all Excel functions were recognized in the worksheet Xcelsius imported, so I had a hard time getting the relationships to work properly. Second, and more important, I found the Xcelsius editing interface very difficult to use. You could only edit or format one control at a time, you couldn’t copy or paste formats, there was no Repeat shortcut.

For my money, if you want a local desktop toy display, Excel is just as capable. Put all the data and calcs on a second worksheet, then use ActiveX sliders to modify inputs to dynamic ranges for charts. The only thing Xcelsius has going for it was the ability to distribute the Flash result via PowerPoint or PDF, or plop it into a web page. In fact, the Excel file can be distributed as effectively as the PowerPoint/PDF version, as long as you are not worried about the security of the data and algorithms.

By Mike Ward. September 5th, 2008 at 12:02 am

Stephen, an interesting article as usual, thank you! It’s sad to see the same mistakes being made over and over again, but as you point out, if nobody bought the products, perhaps vendors would be given the wake-up call they need.

Jon: I would tend to agree with you about Excel. Yes, it’s default visualizations are hopeless, it can take far too many clicks to do simple things, and everything is really more effort than it should be… BUT, with some time, patience and a little ingenuity (and lashings of VBA), there’s much that can be achieved! I’ve created things like animated charts (like gapminder.org), and even made my own map like the one above (but for the UK, much smaller thankfully!) out of freeform autoshapes that works like the ones on Many Eyes.

More effort? Of course, but I’d rather invest the time to have something that can convey meaning, than install Xcelsius, even though it’s already waiting for me across my corporate network… long may it remain there gathering dust says I!

By Josh. September 5th, 2008 at 5:31 am

I’ve been using Xcelsius in the past, mainly for making dull spreadsheets look better.
The problem was that the process of building those dashboards over changing/growing data was too slow, lacking basic analytical capabilities for end users, and couldn’t scale up beyond the simple Excel limitations.

There are much better products out there (we use Tableau Software & Sisense Prism) that can build Dashboards over live data and do not suffer from the given limitations of Xcelsius.

Going over the legacy process of having to “prepare” you data inside an Excel spreadsheet is just not working anymore, even with normal data sizes (a few million rows).
The idea that i need to rearrange cells, add cells based formulas, work with ActiveX controls, or use VBA code, … is just too 90’s for me :)

With today’s technology, i just throw in the complete data-set into the Dashboard product, and bypass the Excel process completely.

P.S: The Xcelsius Pie charts look great :)

By Don Metznik. September 5th, 2008 at 5:42 am

As a marketing professional, I see a parallel between visual business communication and advertising in general in the way that glitz often trumps substance. Are there lessons from communicating the value of the Perceptual Edge approach that can be applied to advertising? “Before and After” is an effective approach, but it is probably prohibitively costly.

By Mike Alexander. September 5th, 2008 at 10:26 am

I am very disappointed in the direction that Business Objects has taken Xclesius. Although I wrote the book “Crystal Xcelsius for Dummies”, I can say that my enthusiasm for the product has been diminished greatly.

When I came to be involved with Xcelsius, It was still being developed by its creators – Infomersion. At the time, they were introducing a new product and trying to break into the visualization world. The Flash graphics were new and exciting. On many levels, they could be forgiven for deliberately sexing up their application to get noticed.

In my dealings with the product managers at (Infomersion) I saw that they were particularly open to community feedback and were committed to developing Xcelsius into a serious visualization tool. I had several conversations with the Infomersion team where they showed me Alpha versions of future releases. Those versions were both innovative and exciting. I was convinced that Xcelsius would be the premiere visualization tool for many in business.

Needless to say, those Alpha versions I saw are nowhere to be seen since Business Objects has taken over. From my perspective, Business Objects has done little to move Xcelsius any closer to the great application it can be. The new version of Xcelsius has a handful of improvements but it’s essentially the same product.

The same visualization faux pas, the same slow performance, the same inability to effectively work with array-based formulas (dsum, sumif, countif), the same quirky limitations, and the same asinine pricing structure. If I didn’t know better, I would say that Business Objects rushed to get a new version out the door to get small to medium-sized businesses to fork out money for the same product.

What Business Objects doesn’t realize (and what Infomersion was in the process of realizing) was that the presentation piece is only half of the product is this. Unless Xcelsius does a better job at integrating closely with Excel, no one will use it past the 2 month honeymoon period. All the sexy graphics in the world won’t make it useful. I can’t tell you how many clients have shelved Xcelsius after a few months because the process of maintaining an Xcelsius dashboard is unsustainable for many people.

Jon Peltier is correct when he says that you’ll have better luck creating more effective dashboards and reports with Excel. In Excel, you can not only conform to the Visualization best practices that Stephen supports, but you can create advanced dashboard models that are easy to maintain and update.

By Sean. September 5th, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I have used Business Objects for the past 10 years and although they have greatly expanded there line of product they have forgot what business they are in, the business of information delivery.

The new WebI graphs are awful and offer very little custom control. I thought that Xcelsius would offer some workarounds, but they just makes the entire process more complex.

It’s hard as a consultant to explain to clients why it takes so many man hours to build what looks like simple charts, and when they ask for come obvious custom changes it requires SDK or very difficult fixes. I feel very bad for Business Objects, they have lost there way. In 2000 they had a great products, not they have more products that are just average.

Our department (Large BO shop) is looking into alternatives to the BO tool because they keep charging more money without making there core products any better.

Listen up Business Objects, another company is going to take your market share if you don’t greatly enhance your core tools.

By ET. September 6th, 2008 at 6:02 am

Technically Xcelsius is even worse than the dashboards shown on the BO homepage. Never saw such a unstable piece of crappy software.
Absolute useless for everybody doing serious bi- or dashboarding business.

SAP should feel ashame to put this product on it’s strategic roadmap as the preferred dashboarding tool.

By Ryan Armasu. September 8th, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Maybe a voice of dissent here. I used Xcel from Infommersion few years back and I built very useful interactive dashboards and tools. It was simple and easy and they had a great visual impact. I agree that using custom templates can land one in hot water and personally I’ve lost interest in Xcelsius since Business Objects took over.

When it comes to MicroCharts dashboard like the one on the Bona Vista site I need some help. They may be useful but to me they contain an overwhelmin amount of information. When I think of a dashboard I always think “can a pilot fly an F16″ with it. I am not sure my boss would have the patience to go through one of the dashboards presented.

For me simplicity, conciseness, and impact are key.

Where am I going wrong?

By Mike Ward. September 9th, 2008 at 1:18 pm

@Ryan:

I don’t think you are going wrong, nothing wrong with being simple and concise. I think a lot of it depends on context. Looking at dashboards out of context, especially in terms of their intended audience, can leave one puzzled and slightly bemused, and I think that is a danger with some of the incredibly dense examples presented by Bona Vista.

Personally, I like to keep my more intricate dashboards in a (very small!) number of tabs or distinct regions, not so disparate that getting a quick overview is impossible, but not so dense as to be overwhelming at first glance.

By Stephen Few. September 10th, 2008 at 11:43 am

Ryan,

Have you ever seen the cockpit controls in an F16? A typical Microcharts dashboard is extremely simple compared to what you’ll find in an F16, yet trained pilots use these cockpit displays comfortably. Human beings are capable of monitoring a great deal of information if the displays are well designed.

Steve

By Ryan Armasu. September 10th, 2008 at 6:56 pm

Stephen:

I have never seen one close enough but you know what I mean. Also, I am a neophyte in data visualization and I am trying to learn as fast as I can. I am particular to a zen approach to infovis but I just bought your book and I’ll be reading it as soon as I get it so expect more comments.

Thanks,

Ryan

By Ryan Armasu. September 11th, 2008 at 8:51 am

Steve:

I’m reading the book and your whitepapers and I am in total agreement. I also like your home page taglines especially the Da Vinci one.

And I admit I am still a Stone Age neanderthal but I am learning as fast as I can. I am actually using your dashboard design book to come up with an executive report.

I am responsible for several manufacturing plants and I have to issue a monthly report on Production, Quality, Cost, Safety, etc. I’ll post my first infovis dashboard trial and let you and your readers laugh, cry, and/or comment whatever emotions it evokes.

Thanks for the very informative books and website.

Ryan

By John. September 17th, 2008 at 10:09 am

To all of the unfortunate readers of this blog:

If you read this information regarding Business Object’s Xcelsius product, you should consider Stephen Few’s apparent relationship with a competitive vendor - Cognos.

In doing a little research, one might wonder if Few is on Cognos’ payroll. Please see link provided below. It appears that Fay has written several whitepapers on the subject of data visualization specifically for the Cognos Innovation Center for Performance Management.

http://www.cognos.com/innovationcenter/reportdesign_series.html

So no surprise that Few would give a negative opinion about a product that is competing with his bread & butter.

To Stepehn Few:

You should give your readers a little more credit and respect, and at least TRY to appear unbiased in your opinions. At $3,000 a day, no wonder why you have so much time to spend writing ridiculous blogs such as this, as opposed to actually working with clients.

By Stephen Few. September 17th, 2008 at 10:44 am

John,

I have done work for many business intelligence software vendors, including Cognos, but do not have a relationship with any. To illustrate the fact that providing consulting services for a vendor does not influence my opinion of their products, try to find a single occasion when I have spoken favorably of Cognos. You won’t find any. Not even in the three white papers that I wrote for Cognos. I speak favorably of products that work effectively and negatively of those that don’t. I would happily provide consulting services for Business Objects if they expressed a genuine interest in my help, but this wouldn’t change my opinion of Xcelsius, nor would it prevent me from critiquing it’s ineffective design and outlandish claims.

Your accusation regarding my motives is without grounds–pure speculative slander–and a feeble attempt to distract people from the facts. Whenever I speak unfavorably about Xcelsius, I backed up my opinions with evidence. You, on the other hand, have countered my facts, not with evidence that my claims about Xcelsius are unmerited, but with misdirection by attempting to malign my integrity. This is a logical fallacy, which holds no sway with critical thinkers. Anyone familiar with my work knows that my professional integrity is without blemish.

Before making such a claim in the future, take the time to check the evidence.

I readily admit that I am biased. I dislike products that don’t work and I like products that do.

Finally, about my time and how I spend it. Once again, you don’t have the facts. The vast majority of my time is spent working with clients solving real problems. It is because of this that I speak out against products like Xcelsius–they poorly address the real needs of real people, and that makes me angry. Things won’t get better unless people raise their voices in protest against bad products and demand better.

By Reid. September 23rd, 2008 at 8:45 am

Hi I am new to reading this site, but was drawn here after reading Mr. Few’s recent book “Information Dashboard Design.” I found the content compelling and perceptive.

I have been using a customer asp.net front-end report delivery system and custom web services query to generate Xcelsius dashboards that pull data from an extensive database. The user’s login produces a token that limits the data that they can view in their dashboards.

So far I have had terrible experiences with Xcelsius Engage not performing as advertised. Even though I am using the “supported” Excel functions I have multiple instances where I must create a work around to accomplish something that worked fine in the developer mode, but failed when my .swf file was generated. My Excel analysis is definitely intense, but Business Objects bills this product as having a full version of Excel in the backend. If Excel were this weak, Microsoft would be out of business.

Of course the sexy visual graphics are why we are even on this Xcelsius road, but I really wish they would work the bugs out.

Does anyone else have this trouble?

By Justin. September 25th, 2008 at 11:20 pm

Hi Stephen,

I must say that the points you brought to people’s attention are valid. For example the Aqua skin Pie chart really does seem to show a seperate segment, I prefer to use the Halo skin, still got the bling but not the shadows. Granted many of the things you can do in Xcelsius you can do in Excel eg: what if scenarios. Please bear in mind regarding all the templates you may find on the BO website for Xcelsius. They are all template examples of how to use Xcelsius, no where have I seen BO every saying download and use the template to run an area of your business. Their is an art in creating meaningful and informative visualization and I have seen many which don’t make sense. The fundamental reason being their user/client requirement are not clear enough. When the user gives and in some cases draws out their vision, the visuals speak a thousand words.

Granted I do have my frustrations with Xcelsius and that’s sometimes due to the fact that our client requirements push what it can do to the limit. But here are a few reasons why I feel people buying this product for right reason, won’t be wasting their money as you say:
1) Who of us can actually code in flex and produce swfs? Swfs are platform independant, with use of flash variables as a developer you can pass in and out data to a swf. You can embed a swf in almost any application. And have it run on almost any web browser.
2) Live data connectivity - using streaming xml or packaged xml from a webservice, you can connect an xcelsius swf to almost any data, anywhere in the world.
3) If you have ever done a requirements gathering session with users, using Xcelisus 2008 with the embedded excel model in it you can do a POC (proof of concept) right on the spot.
4) Do you know you can launch google maps from within Xcelsius and with your live data popoulate the map with your own data points?
5) The embedded help tutorials (even on component level) are one of the best I’ve seen to help non IT people learn how to use the tool.
6) Save and load what if scenarios easily

Always keep in mind that Xcelsius is one product in the BO suite just for dashboards, completemented with reports, portals ect … you get a total BI solution. I don’t think Xcelsius ever claim to replace excel functionality just enhance it.
Xcelsius doesn’t make coffee and do all your work. Its a tool and knowing how to use the tool you can add value to an organization.

By Stephen Few. September 26th, 2008 at 1:14 pm

Justin,

My concern with Xcelsius isn’t that it has limitations, but that it doesn’t effectively do the little that it does. Can it be used to build worthwhile displays and analytical applications? I’m sure it can handle some tasks tolerably well. My question is, is Xcelsius worthwhile, given its limitations and the built-in bad practices that you’re forced to work around, when better tools are available? In designer Alan Cooper’s terms, Xcelsius is a dancing bear. The only people who find it entertaining are those who have never seen real dancing.

By Kalyan Verma. October 9th, 2008 at 7:55 am

Thank you Stephen, for the wonderful books and blog. They all serve as a great resource while designing dashboards.

I recently attended a Business Objects User Group in Chicago area. There was a presentation on Xcelsius Roadmap. I asked some questions like above. The presenter answered that they are going to implement those in their next release. Also i remember they mentioning your name. They said that Stephen Few is going to help them build a better Xcelsius. How far is this true?

Regards,
Kalyan

By Stephen Few. October 10th, 2008 at 9:48 am

Kalyan,

This is news to me. I’ve received no requests from Business Objects to help them improve Xcelsius. Perhaps they mean that I am helping them indirectly through my books, articles, and blogs.

By Andy Kriebel. October 13th, 2008 at 9:39 am

Stephen,

Having met you and been critiqued by you at the Tableau customer conference, I have great respect for your views towards pie charts.

I thought you might be interested to see abuse of pie charts by Lyndsay Wise, who is someone I have great respect for. Pages 6 & 7 of this report are particularly difficult to read. Bar charts would have been perfect.

http://wiseanalytics.typepad.com/my_weblog/files/midmarket_bi.pdf

Keep up the good work!
Andy

By Jerz. October 21st, 2008 at 5:02 pm

mmm Very interesting i was looking at this product but went for a different approach with a hosted solution for our team, (myDIALS.com) i very nearly invest in BO having read this article i am glad i chose a different solution, my main reason for going mydials is that we have a number of users in different parts of the world who needed access and the hosted nature made is a simple matter

By Steve Bickerton. October 22nd, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Hi Steve,

I respectively disagree with your assessment of Xcelsius. You’ve taken one template to base your conculsions on. This is what I have issue with. Yes, this template leaves something to be desired, but that doesn’t mean the product is deficient. Most templates from most products leave us wanting more.

That being said, there is a lot of cool Xcelsius examples on the market made by other companies that are amazing. I am 100% sure we could even find a good Unemployment Trends template from some third company with a little work.

Finally, everything you criticized about the product is very possible: historical display, smaller gauges, better use of maps, automatic updates of analytics and hover overs that show the correct percentage. You used the issues of the template to extrapolate to the product. Probably not a 100% accurate to do so in my opinion.

I do think it’s very fair to criticize the template. The product, however, is excellent.

Regards,

Steve

By Stephen Few. October 22nd, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Steve,

Actually, I haven’t based my conclusions about Xcelsius on a single template that is sold with the new Xcelsius Present version of the product. My opinion has been shaped through several years of exposure to the product, both through absurd promotional claims and sample applications, as well as interaction with many customers who struggle to use the product effectively. In this blog post I used a single template to illustrate the fact that the team that’s responsible for Xcelsius doesn’t understand data analysis or data visualization. This lack of understanding has caused them to build significantly dysfunctional features into the product.

I suspect that reasonably good applications can be developed using the product; I just haven’t seen one in countless examples. If you have an example to share, I’d love to see it.

By Steve Bickerton. October 22nd, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Steve,

Over the past several years (3?), you haven’t seen one good application using Xcelsius?

By Ruan. October 29th, 2008 at 9:10 am

Hello Steve (Bickerton),

You mentioned “there is a lot of cool Xcelsius examples on the market made by other companies that are amazing”. Would you know if any of these examples are published anywhere? I would really like to review a professionally made Xcelsius dashboard.

Thanks
Ruan

By Gary Johnson. November 6th, 2008 at 8:27 am

I’m going to have to agree with Mr. Bickerton. While Mr. Few is responsible for many advancements in dashboarding, this article implies a problem with the product based on an application built with it. There are four version of the product - Present being the lowest. It is true that many become enamored with the glitz and build poor applications - which he ably points out. But in the hands of a good developer one can build very advanced applications which I suspect he might like. Try this:
http://myxcelsius.com/wp-content/uploads/airlinedashboard/AirlineDashboard.swf.
The product has a wide array of connectivity options and is very extensible because of its Flash base. It can be used by the casual departmetal analyst or the professional developer effectively. My suggestion would be to try one of the advanced versions such as Engage Server.

By Stephen Few. November 6th, 2008 at 10:03 am

Gary,

Congratulations! The dashboard that you provided a link to above is the first example I’ve seen of anything developed using Xcelsius that exhibits an understanding of visual communication. You’ve demonstrated that, with enough work, Xcelsius can be used to develop an effective visual design, at least for this particular application. However, the question remains: “How does this tool compare to others?” I believe it compares poorly. As Mike Alexander, the author of “Crystal Xcelsius for Dummies” stated in this blog above, “…you’ll have better luck creating more effective dashboards and reports with Excel.”

By Gary Johnson. November 17th, 2008 at 9:48 am

Stephen,
I really do respect your valuable contributions to the industry but I’m having trouble understanding why you link the tool so closely with the end result. One can develop bad or good dashboard applications with either Excel or Xcelsius. Maybe your gripe really is with the way it is marketed or that the default visual components are not in harmony with your design principles. In either case, those are kind of superficial ways to evaluate the product itself. You don’t like the components? Fine. Xcelsius includes an SDK that allows a Flash developer to create any visual component you like, including bullet graphs and sparklines - as the example I gave. Maybe it would be wiser if SAP included them in the core product but at least they provided for them.
Regarding the comment about being to create more effective dashboards and reports with Excel, that’s untrue in the absolute sense. There is no way you can create that web-enabled Xcelsius Airline Operations dashboard in Excel alone. Sure, you can use add-ons using a secondary web-enablement infrastructure but you are commpletely dismissing the web services connectivity, SDK, distributed architecture, web enablement, real time and just plain good looks that Xcelsius offers.
With all due respect I think you and Mr. Anderson need to look deeper into the technologies that drive these things.

By Stephen Few. November 17th, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Gary,

We are so accustomed to poorly designed software, we tend to forgive software products for problems that we would never tolerate in other types of products (for example, a car). I commend you on your ability to produce something that is well designed with a product that doesn’t make it easy. The fact that you are the first person who has been able to show me an example of a well-designed Xcelsius dashboard speaks volumes about the product. The design of the product encourages people to produce poorly designed and therefore ineffective applications. Shouldn’t a product be designed in a way that nudges people in the direction of best practices? The fact that a talented individual like yourself has figured out ways to work around Xcelsius’ bad habits doesn’t serve as a example of the product’s worth–it speaks highly of your worth.

I set a high but reasonable standard for software and I evaluate software on this basis. If we tolerate bad software and give it credit for our own successes at working around its limitations, vendors will never give us the good software that we need and deserve.

Regarding Mike Alexander (not “Mr. Anderson”), I suspect that, as the author of a book about Xcelsius, he took the time to delve into it very deeply. If the people who are in charge of developing this software exhibited the level of expertise and care that Mike Alexander exhibits in his books, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.

I reserve praise for the products that have earned it, which are far too few.

By Gary Johnson. November 18th, 2008 at 1:50 pm

First, let me recommend another book “Xcelsius Best Practices” - http://safari.oreilly.com/9780768685800. You can get the ecopy now even though it isn’t released in print yet.
Second, while I linked to the Airline Dashboard I did not develop it. We have demod similar things where I work though using the same bullet graph and sparkline components, which were developed with the Xcelsius SDK and are freely available.
Third, while Xcelsius was originally designed to spiff up workbooks, Excel itself can be used to develop applications. Xcelsius increasingly leverages this capability and it’s weaknesses are tied to Excel’s weakness as an app development tool.
Finally, in the purest sense your dashboard design vision sets the standard and should be followed by all but, (you knew that was coming) many users also have requirements outside of just the design. Advanced data connectivity, dynamic updates, various distribution methods, what-if analaysis, end user (i.e. non-I/T) dashboard development, versioning, approval, update notification, etc. are equally important. Xcelsius does a pretty good job here especially when the swf’s are integrated within Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal. I agree that the templates, the way it’s marketed, the emphasis on flashy (no pun intended) components and the way it’s commonly deployed belie its possibilities but in the end, it’s almost always about how you use the tool and not the tool itself.

By Stephen Few. November 19th, 2008 at 10:13 am

Gary,

Yesterday, I taught my dashboard design course for a rather large, well-known corporation. They currently use Xcelsius. Similar to other customers of mine, they find it difficult to get Xcelsius to produce the simple and clear dashboards that I advocate. For instance, they find that they often cannot turn off the silly 3D lighting effects. They have asked Business Objects for help with this and have been told that in many cases these effects cannot be eliminated. I’ve heard this complaint from several clients. They would also love to produce bullet graphs and sparklines like those in the airline dashboard example, but can’t figure out how to do it. In fact, when they looked at this example, it wasn’t obvious to them based on its behavior that the section that includes the bullet graphs and sparklines was developed using Xcelsius. If it was, they would love to know how. For their sake and that of others, I’d like to confirm that this one and only example (in my opinion) of a well-designed Xcelsius dashboard was actually fully developed using Xcelsius. Do you know the answer?

By Ryan. November 19th, 2008 at 11:49 am

Your branding of the demo dashboards as templates is both unprofessional and misleading. These are demos, pure and simple, not a comprehensive set of best practices. It is clear that your comments revolve around the design choices of the individuals who built the dashboards, rather than the product itself. For example, “Non-Institutional Population” and “Civilian Labor Force” being unrelated sets has nothing to do with the product. If a man builds a shack, do we blame the hammer?

By Stephen Few. November 19th, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Ryan,

According to the Xcelsius Present press release dated August 12, 2008 from Business Objects, the 10 applications that I described are templates, not just demos as you claim. Here are the actual words that appeared in the press release:

“Pre-loaded in Xcelsius Present are ten ready-to-use data visualization templates, allowing first-time Xcelsius Present users to immediately use and benefit from the solution. These templates are tailored for specific business functions, such as human resources, sales, marketing, finance and accounting, as well as different vertical segments like government and education.”

As you can see, I am not being unprofessional or misleading. These templates are part of the product.

By Ryan. November 19th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Stephen,

Perhaps my post requires some explanation. Your argument revolves around the fact that the demos are built without using your preference and methodology for creating dashboards. It is unprofessional and misleading of you to extend that because these demos do not suit your design methodology, that the entire product itself is unworthy.

Again, if a man builds a shack, do we blame the hammer?

By Stephen Few. November 19th, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Ryan,

Actually, your new explanation isn’t consistent with your original statement. You accused me of knowingly miss-characterizing what you call “demos, pure and simple” as templates. Now that I’ve demonstrated that it is Business Objects that calls them templates and sells them as such, you have softened your statement.

Nevertheless, to address your argument that we should not blame the hammer for building a shack, the hammer shares the blame when it’s ill-equipped to drive a nail. Reread my original post and several of the comments from Xcelsius users who confirm my judgments. Xcelsius is poorly designed for data analysis and presentation.

By Mark. November 20th, 2008 at 8:54 am

Stephen,
One question, why do you like the Dashboard provided by Gary http://myxcelsius.com/wp-content/uploads/airlinedashboard/AirlineDashboard.swf

Is it because it has bullet graphs?

I have shown this kind of samples to numerous users and they simply find it too overwhelming. If you think a dashboard software is bad simply because they cannot produce bullet graphs then it is extremely biased view.

My 2 cents
Mark

By Stephen Few. November 20th, 2008 at 10:35 am

Mark,

To say that I like the airline dashboard example overstates my opinion of it. Many aspects of its design beg for improvement. I simply like it better than any other example of an Xcelsius application that I’ve seen because it exhibits an attempt to design a display for effective communication. Yes, I like the fact that it includes sparklines, because they’re often useful, and bullet graphs, because they offer a more effective alternative to the other gauges that Xcelsius provides. I don’t evaluate the merits of a product based on its ability to produce bullet graphs, but on its ability to display data effectively.

If you show someone a sample dashboard that contains a few cute gauges and some eye-catching lighting effects and then show them an example that contains a great deal more information using graphics such as sparklines and bullet graphs, most people will indicate an immediate preference for the former. Initial human preference is not a good indicator of a display’s effectiveness. Also, comparing a dashboard with little information to one with a great deal more information is not a valid comparison. When people have expertise in a particular data domain, they are capable of processing a great deal of information very rapidly, if the display is well designed. The way to judge a display’s effectiveness is to test its usability in the context of real work.

By Gary Johnson. November 21st, 2008 at 12:42 pm

I don’t know about the whole airline dashboard but the sparklines and bullet charts are designed using the Xcelsius 2008 SDK as and other Xcelsius component. Just google ‘xcomponents’ to find them.
It really doesn’r even matter whether you like the xcomponents or Xcelsius visualizations, as the SDK allows a developer to create whatever he/she desires.
I think those of us who disagree with your assessment of Xcelsius Present is that it doesn’t take into account that Xcelsius is just a tool and the packaged visual components represent only a small set of the tools functionality. If you’re only willing to look at that one aspect than I suppose one would view it as rather limited.

By Stephen Few. November 21st, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Gary,

My assessment of Xcelsius Present does not only take the poorly designed templates into account. Every one of my clients who use Xcelsius find that it poorly serves their data analysis and presentation needs. It is much too difficult to create a well-designed application using Xcelsius. Why should anyone choose a tool that is difficult to use when better tools are available? Perhaps they could get it to do what they want if you were available to develop their applications for them, but why should they pay you to do what Xcelsius claims everyone can do?

To answer the question “How can I include useful graphs such as sparklines and bullet graphs in my Xcelsius application?” by saying “the SDK allows a developer to create whatever he/she desires” is not an acceptable response to anyone other than a skilled software developer. Business Objects claims that Xcelsius makes it “easy for non-technical users to develop business dashboards in less than an hour.” This simply isn’t so, unless your talking about bad applications like the templates that are included with the product.

By Gary Johnson. November 24th, 2008 at 9:16 am

Stephen,
Let me give you some more insight into my perspective. As with most products the answer ultimately is “it depends”. Can a non technical end user create a pretty good looking and functional Xcelsius dashboard using Excel as a data source? Sure. So BO’s claim is accurate in a marketing context. The end users I know, who have created Xcelsius dashboards, are pretty happy with the results and did them quickly without I/S involvement. But again, these were pretty simple apps.
OTOH, I’m guessing 80%+ of any serious dashboard app is related to gathering data from corporate systems, and that certainly requires techincal help. The actual visual design is important but it’s a rather small task in a large project. In that case it’s unrealistic for the vendor or dashboard designer to have simple expectations about ease, timeframes, skill level, etc. There is much more to Xcelsius tha the visual part and those are the things that are important on these more complex projects.
As far as sparklines and bullet graphs specifically, I didn’t say that you need a software developer to create them. Those are specifically offered at http://xcomponents.blogspot.com/. I installed them and they work fine, right within Xcelsius.
Finally, I’m not defending Xcelsius, BO can do that for themselves. In fact, coming from the technical side I feel it’s greatest weakness in a complex project is its reliance on Excel as the data modeling tool. OTOH, that’s also one of its greatest strengths, in that a typical Excel user can create a decent fairly sophisticated dashboard. It all depends on the app.
Personally, if I were BO I’d probably consult with you on the template designs and include the sparklines and bullet graphs in the next fix pack. That way, I’d get a better product to work with.

By Elad. December 16th, 2008 at 10:06 am

This is by far the most interesting discussion about dashboarding and data visualization I’ve encountered on a blog. I think both sides make valid arguments. One thing I completely agree with is that software is widely more ‘forgiven’ for having a crappy MMI than products in other markets.

It will probably remain like this for a while simply because long established vendors don’t care about anything that doesn’t directly affect their revenue stream, and ‘Good MMI’ is very difficult for them to translate into income.

This is a matter of culture. When customers start demanding what they deserve - loud and in numbers - software vendors will quickly respond. I believe this will begin happening in the foreseeable future simply because common development frameworks (.Net, Java, Flash, etc) are getting better in making it EASY to create a comfortable and intuitive interface. When enough software with superior MMI come out, customers will start demanding nothing less.

We’ve already started seeing this in our customer behaviour (we’re in the BI and dashboards business too).

Thank you for the interesting discussion!

Elad
CTO
SiSense

By eddie. January 31st, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Excellent blog. Just brilliant. I my self have Xcelsius Engage and do have a difficulties at time, looking at other visualization softwares.

By Marco. February 2nd, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Hi,

I have used Xcelsius from Infomersion in 2003 More than 5 years ago and at that time you could make very great presentations based on data in Excel / XML streams with nice charts etc.

I have made also a website with images for a photographer in flash with the Developer Edition. That was also great.

Now these days it is not so fancy anymore. Infomersion did sold in time the idea / product.

I have been always wondering why the product is now more than 200Mb while these days it was a simple 25mb program. I don’t see much news in the Xcelsius as there was at that moment.

It was always nice to make great lokking presentation but as with Excel it is not always so easy to update with new data and other structures.

Marco

By Joe. February 20th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Although I’m not an experienced Xcelsius user, I can say that the initial learning curve for Xcelsius is higher than other products such as Tableau based on my limited observations. In fact, I asked an App Developer in our organization to replicate a multi-faceted report in Xcelsius that was originally done in Tableau with the exact same data sources. The App Developer was not able to even get close to my original Tableau report using Xcelsius or BOE Web Intelligence.

The other huge weakness to Xcelsius (unless a fix has been added recently) is that there is no easy way to see if your data source has changed and gone beyond the bounds of the Excel template that captures your data beneath Xcelsius. As an example, let’s say you’ve created your data model in Excel to accept 1,000 records and 10 columns from your data source to populate your Xcelsius dashboard. The next day your data source is updated to include 1,500 records and 11 columns, but when you open your Xcelsius report, the Excel model supporting Xcelsius will still only report on 1,000 rows and 10 columns. The user will have no idea this is the case without some time spent checking and re-checking the model.

So, not only does Xcelsius have some weaknesses on the front-end in terms of presentation design, but it also has some issues with data integrity on the back-end. I would be curious to know if anyone in this discussion has had problems like this and if there are any workarounds to allow your data ranges to dynamically change.

Thanks for the opportunity to be part of a great discussion.

-Joe

By Gene. August 13th, 2009 at 7:17 am

This was a great discussion to read. Thanks. I have been working with Xcelsius for less than a year now. I am a web programmer foremost, but was tasked with implementing a data warehouse for our company. I have learned so much from it.

We selected BusinessObjects, mostly, because they were the only company who even entertained our business(WTF?). Anyway, as far as the product line goes, the WebIntelligence AD HOC reporting is fast and fantastic, but its presentation is lack-luster. We purchased licenses for Xcelsius (by recommendation of BO/SAP sales) for dashboarding. So far…Xcelsius has been the bane of my existance!!! I think it is a hoaky/buggy POS. My gripes are not in what kind of dashboards I can make with it, but that the app is so buggy and unreliable, I cringe opening it up. As far as I know, I have all of the latest bug fixes/service packs. Its just junk. I love how I have to go into task manager and kill EXCEL.EXE everytime I close Xcelsius. Although Live Office (in theory) makes formatted data collection easy for making dashboards, it is so unreliable and the connections get corrupted all of the time. I am so sick of re-building dashboards because of live office. There is so much more I hate about Xcelsius - but as you see, I can just rant.

Does anyone have a recommendation for a better Dashboarding tool that I can use with the BusinessObjects suite?

By Flynet. September 22nd, 2009 at 7:06 am

Has anyone heard any plans for Busobj to make the product more useful(or at least easier to use) or launch a new product to replace? I hear a lot of negative comment about Xcelsius - it must have some positives!

By Andrew. October 29th, 2009 at 7:40 am

“Does anyone have a recommendation for a better Dashboarding tool that I can use with the BusinessObjects suite?”

You mentioned that Live Office is giving you corrupt connections, and this is a common complaint, along with the inability to handle large loads of data.

There is a new 3rd party suite of components called Xcelsius Web Intelligence Integration Suite, made by a company called Antivia. (Disclaimer- I work for them)

This suite would allow you to connect to the data via the WebI reports, ending the need for either Live Office or Query as a Web Service.

By Adil Majeed. December 16th, 2009 at 2:56 am

Yes, i do agree that its really difficult to built highly visualize and complex dashboards. I have been using this product since it was with infomersion. Most of the problems, its been already mention above. Look at the other front end tools like Tableau, QlikView, Spotfire and others. How they improve in their data connectivity and visualizations; XCelsius not even close to 1% of it. The only plus point what i see is using the What-If Model which in turn diffuclt to built with Excel and impossible to built with Tableau. QlikView can able to make these kind of What-IF Models with a greater depth. XCelsius needs to improve a lot, otherwise other companies will take their market share in that respect.