XCelsius Dashboard: the population pyramid

Can my Excel Demographic Dashboard be recreated in Crystal XCelsius? This is the main theme for this series of posts. In the first post I set the stage, define the rules and show how the basic “demographic KPI’s” can be displayed using gauges. The second post discusses one of the major drawbacks I find in XCelsius and similar applications: the use of textures and the consequences of it.

Back to the dashboard, I am trying to recreate the population pyramid that you can find in the Excel version. Please take a look at the Excel pyramid (above) and the one I designed in XCelsius (below):

I don’t want to discuss features and options, only the end result, but let me summarize the process:

  • There seems to be no easy way in XCelsius to connect data points in a scatter plot and I didn’t like the chart without them, so I had to rule out the scatter plot;
  • There is no option to align series in a bar chart, so it can’t be used to create a pyramid; the option is available for the stacked bar chart, but in this case you can’t display four series without stacking them (obviously);
  • This is a minor issue: the x-axis labels can’t be formatted to remove the minus sign but, as long as the scale doesn’t change, you can hide it with a small white rectangle.

My final solution uses a stacked bar chart to encode the current year and a subtle overlapping scatter plot to encode the reference year (1996). I could also minimize spacing between data points by using a smaller chart or by interpolating data points. I chose this one because it retains the nature of the tool (namely the texture in the bars). Feel free to send me other alternatives!

The XCelsius pyramid looks a little better than the bare bones Excel version, but spotting the differences between the reference and the current year is harder.

So, what are the learnings? Judging from this task, in XCelsius you are confined to a very small set of charts that you are unable to format the way you’d like. This is not necessarily bad. It depends on your audience, your data, what and how you want to show.

So, my advice would be: if there are no trade-offs (are you sure?), if what/how you want to say can be said in Xcelsius without significant perceptual impact, and your audience likes it, by all means, use it. But try to be very conservative in your formatting options (minimizing the impact of textures, for example), otherwise those eye-catching charts can wear out very fast.

That said, I believe that you can’t avoid trade-offs and that, by using Xcelsius, you can lose some relevant details in your data. But this is not over. Let’s see if Xcelsius proves me wrong. The next post discusses scatter plots.

6 thoughts on “XCelsius Dashboard: the population pyramid

  1. I did a few Xcelsius projects a couple of years ago. Xcelsius had some interesting possibilities, but I always felt handcuffed by the limits of Xcelsius charts. It was hard to customize axes and labels, and impossible to hide series in a chart (e.g., to create a floating colummn chart). We had to oversimplify many of our displays because of the mismatch in capabilities between Xcelsius and the Excel prototype.

  2. I agree with both of your (Jorge & Jon) observations about Xcelsius’ limitations and being handcuffed. Here’s my take on the two examples in this post. The Xcelsius has a bit more eye-appeal, but the Excel version is much more effective in communicating the results.

  3. The Xcelsius graphic immediately catches the eye, but I think it loses a little impact of the data where the lines are plotted.
    However, I use CX to add interactivity to the graphics i.e. a button bar which allows the user to select different scenarios of data, or a slider which plots through a time scale.
    Using an Xcelsius graphic on every slide I produce would be overkill, so all things in moderation ? I consider the interactive element of Xcelsius to be its strongest feature.

  4. Jon, that’s exactly how I felt, handcuffed by lacking, wrong or misplaced options and pushed towards an oversimplification that ultimately would change all that I had in mind. And I just wanted a very basic chart…

    Tony, this unfortunate duality eye-appeal vs. effective communication is something that I want to fight. A chart should be pleasant but not eye-catching, should communicate effectively without being minimalistically rational. How can we achieve that? Good question…

    Pete, interactivity is a key issue (someone at Microsoft should read Jacques Bertin). Only a fairly advanced user can implement an interactive chart in Excel, and that doesn’t make sense.

  5. I have enjoyed reading your blog. It’s thorough, informative and fun. Thanks.

    The two approaches to population pyramids (scatter plot in Excel and stacked bar in Xcelsius) made me response in my blog = still another approach how to create an age pyramid.

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