No Crystal Xcelsius dashboard, sorry

This is the last post in a series where I examined the possibility of creating a Crystal Xcelsius dashboard using my Demographic Dashboard as a benchmark. I’ll discuss here my overall conclusions.

I must say from the start that I am very disappointed.

Let’s start by the data set and Xcelsius integration with Excel. I struggle everyday to squeeze more and better data into my Excel files. To accomplish that, named ranges, pivot tables or some advanced Excel functions like GETPIVOTDATA are basic tools I can’t live without. Take pivot tables, for example. Crystal Xcelsius doesn’t support them and you have to use aggregate functions like SUMIF instead. But what if you can’t use them (there are many reasons, like when your source data has more than the Excel row/column limits)?

If you are serious about creating Crystal Xcelsius dashboards, I advise you to use a large data set right from the start. That will show you how crucial a good Excel data model is for the success of your dashboard. For the advanced Excel users, “a good Excel data model” probably would mean to change the way we work at a fundamental level, using less data and dropping some of the best tools from our tool set. Judging from this experiment, there is no positive cost-benefit result.

The same applies to the chart engine. Several of the tools I take for granted in Excel are missing in Crystal Xcelsius. I am trying to fight the idea that every single option I have in Excel should be available in Xcelsius, but not being able to format a series (turn on/off markets) or a specific data point, seriously undermines the overall design. For example, by adding series name to the last data point in a line chart you can remove the legend, something that, where possible, you should always do to improve chart readability. Not being able to connect data points in a scatter plot or overlap bars are other deadly sins.

Jeff, commenting in the last post, wants me to answer to this question: “Do you agree with Stephen Few’s criticisms of CX?” First of all, what criticisms we are talking about? According to Few:

There is probably some useful functionality hiding beneath Xcelsius’ video game look and feel, but the dominance of distracting visual fluff and game-like sound effects severely undermines its integrity and proclaims that Business Objects doesn’t understand or seriously care about data visualization. Business Objects does care about sales, however, and knows that many people find the video game qualities of Xcelsius entertaining. Few of our customers are experts in data visualization. They haven’t done empirical research to determine what works and what doesn’t, nor have they read the research findings of others. Vendors selling data visualization software are supposed to be the experts, working to give people what they need. It pains me to see the potential of data visualization reduced to this level. Business Objects is certainly not alone in this; just louder than most vendors in marketing this snake oil.

This accurately represents Few’s strong opinions regarding Crystal Xcelsius, I suppose. I usually agree with him, but only partially I subscribe to his opinions in this case. Let me outline some key points where I may have different views and believes:

  • Unlike Few (and Tufte), I don’t believe in a pure rational approach to display design. The visual communication takes place in a social context that changes the chart designer and the audience;
  • I believe that the chart designer must understand how people respond emotionally to his designs;
  • Some empirical research (pdf) in human-computer interaction suggests that “post-experimental perceptions of system usability were affected by the interface’s aesthetics and not by the actual usability of the system”; if we can transfer these results to chart design it could mean that an aesthetically pleasing chart gets a better response from the audience than a purely functional chart;
  • “Purely functional” is also how we can describe the use of color in Few’s dashboards; we should strive to find a point where “functional” and “aesthetically pleasing” don’t conflict but complement and add to the user’s experience;
  • Following Jacques Bertin, interaction builds knowledge; I believe that, when possible, at least a minimum level of interaction should be build into the visual display of information and the user should be invited to play with tool and, yes, probably we should make it entertaining;

I believe that, using Xcelsius, you can’t create an efficient visualization of even a moderately complex data set. This is a more fundamental problem than the “distracting visual fluff”. As you can see in the following pies (sorry…) you can get a simple and nicely rendered chart once you remove the visual fluff (pie #2):


Do I agree with Stephen Few? I am not far from him, but I’m taking a different path. He takes Business Objects’ sale pitches too seriously and misses Xcelsius fundamental flaws. I’m more condescending. Xcelsius is a lovely toy piano, but please don’t bring it to my concert hall…

Bottom line: if you have a small and simple data set, if you want to add that extra layer of complexity, if all you need are some rudimentary charts, if your dashboard looks clumsy in Excel, if you gain in aesthetics without compromising effectiveness, by all means, use Xcelsius. Prototype it in Excel and then compare it to what you get in Xcelsius. Be sure to have a strong data model before designing the dashboard and playing with the chart options.

For real world dashboards, use Excel or better.

2 thoughts on “No Crystal Xcelsius dashboard, sorry”

  1. You have adequately answered my question and you make some good points.

    I believe too much glitter dilutes the message, but some pizzazz is needed in data visualization to engage the audience.
    (Why is Silk, a non-dairy product, in the refrigerated section? min 14:55)

    I would love to share my favorite Stephen Few moments related to CX…

    Maybe not everyone interprets them as criticism of BO’s product. I see them as validation that there is much room for improvement when developing tools to further democratize BI and data visualization.

    “Any executive who is challenged by creating a simple table or graph in Excel isn’t going to find salvation in Crystal Excelsius. Even the executive’s assistant, who is the one who really creates the presentation in most cases, probably won’t find Crystal Xcelsius easier or faster to use than Excel.”

    “it emphasizes features and functionality that subvert effective dashboard communication”

    And a post that always makes me smile: Taunts from the playground
    “Keep giving your customers what they want, even when it doesn’t work, rather than taking responsibility as a consultant to add value. That may satisfy them for the moment, but it won’t help them in the least.”

  2. I think your points are valid and well articulated. To be honest I think your Blog titles advocate “Crystal Xcelsius Dislike” more than the actual content. Without getting to much into what Xcelsius can or can’t do with respects to Excel charting, I think it’s important to also recognize where all of this is going. Dashboards, widgets, analysis and just general RIA’s. At some point Excel WILL fall short of user expectations from deployment to real-time performance and interaction. Rather than considering Xcelsius a “toy piano” of charting, people should understand its designed purpose, which is really a mix of PowerPoint, Excel and Flex technologies.

    One should ALWAYS take advantage of every tool in their arsenal and use them when are where appropriate, taking into consideration data, audience, deployment, scalability and general user interaction.

    Personally, I feel much more comfortable in Crystal Xcelsius and Flex more than I ever would in Excel…but that’s probably because of my design background.

    …different folks, different strokes! None the less a very interesting and thought provoking series. Thanks for taking time to dive into it.

    Last note: Found this Flex RIA using web-services, which would be very possible in Xcelsius. I see added value here that just isn’t possible in an Excel “Dashboard”…just something to think about 🙂

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