I humbly accept our business visualization reality: 90% of all business charts are created in Excel and most business users are unwilling to learn yet another application and go through all sorts of hassles (data management, compatibility issues, file sharing) just because a different product offers a bigger chart gallery and some obscure defaults no one cares about (except the experts).

You don’t take driving lessons in a Ferrari, specially if you don’t know the difference between a Ferrari and a Fiat. Why would you want Tableau or Spotfire if all you want and need is a pie chart?

If we want to make users more curious about the way they use their data, if we want to persuade them that 3D charts are useless, if we want them to adopt what we believe to be information visualization best practices, we must start with the application the users are familiar with.

It would be great to have a better tool in every computer, but we don’t have it. What we can do is to undermine it from inside, by educating the users and showing them how mediocre the tool is.

If done right, this should be visible in market surveys, sooner or later. And Microsoft will react to that, hopefully. There is no other way.

Leaving the Excel Flatland

That said, we can agree that Excel’s chart gallery is notoriously poor, defaults and options a nightmare, and the implementation of advanced visualization techniques a pain in the ass. And while you can argue that most new chart formats are outperformed by traditional ones (and a large majority is) you cannot assume that the plain ol’ bar chart will be here forever. We are using XVIII century visualization tools to display XXI century data. Things change very slowly indeed.

We cannot understand information visualization if our worldview is framed by the Excel chart gallery. Yes, we can recreate in Excel some formats that we see in other applications, but something is always lost in translation. Like in this song:

Brilha, brilha lá no céu
a estrelinha que nasceu.

You may know it as:

Twinkle, twinkle little star
how I wonder what you are.

The music is the same, but the user experience is much different (specially if the user doesn’t know Portuguese…).


Kelly O’Day over at ProcessTrends if offering the Learn R Toolkit, target at Excel users. I’ve just bought it. Why?

  • Because I like the idea;
  • Because I’m curious about creating charts using a programming language;
  • Because it’s not easy to create this in Excel, no matter how hard Jon tries :).

Now, let me be frank. I don’t believe that regular Excel users would want to use R. If recording simple macros are outside their comfort zone, an application that requires programming even to create a basic chart is clearly out of limits.

R seems to require a lot of programming to create more advanced charts. Surely you can create a bar chart with three lines of code, but that’s the equivalent of

print "Hello World!"

Not very useful, but I’m sure Kelly’s Toolkit will encourage me to explore and break some handcuffs.

I don’t want to write a blog about Excel charts. I just want to write about making sense of business data. The tool shouldn’t matter (but it does).