A couple of weeks back was a really exciting time for us. Less than a year after we released Office 365 for Businesses, we announced the general availability of Power BI for Office 365. You may have read previous blog articles by Quentin Clark on Making Big Data Work for Everyone and Kamal Hathi on Simplifying Business Intelligence through Power BI for Office 365. In this article, we’ll outline how we think about visualizations.

Why Visualizations Matter

While a list of items is great for entering or auditing data, data visualizations are a great way to distill information to what matters most that is understandable quickly. They work by engaging visual parts of our brains, which are inherently designed to detect patterns quickly. On the left, for example, we have a list of research grants, on the right a summarization of the overall amounts by month of the year which is a much easier way to understand the relative spikes in September and October. As you can see, visualizations are great for making us all more productive with data.

Visualizations in Productivity Apps

We have the privilege of having the largest community of users of productivity applications in the world. Thanks to their ongoing feedback, we are able to understand their changing needs, and ensure Office evolves in directions our customers find most useful.

Back in the early days of computing, graphics and visualizations were not mainstream capabilities.  Most machines lacked the graphics horsepower and memory needed, and people had to draw illustrations and charts by hand which was time consuming and fraught with mistakes. That all changed when the Macintosh and PCs made graphics a first class citizen. Microsoft introduced Microsoft Chart in 1984, and in 1985 as a feature in Mac Excel 1.0.  

Advertisement, September 1984

This was a huge achievement. Customers could now use their computers to draw charts and other graphics for reports. Based on their feedback, numerous charting and graphics features were added to Office: charting was added to Excel 2.0 for Windows in 1987, 3D charts were introduced in 1990, and the chart wizard made it even easier to create charts in 1992. As computers spread from businesses into the homes for consumer uses, GPUs became more commonplace, and memory costs dropped, these innovations became broadly available.

Over the last decade, customer needs have evolved significantly, with more emphasis on faster creation, more interactivity, support for new types of data, and broader availability. Following is a list of innovations in recent releases, described to set the context of where we are as well as where we are headed.

Faster Creation of Visualizations

Excel 2007 introduced the ability to set the style of a chart with one click and leverage richer graphics such as shadows, anti-aliased lines, and transparency.  

Office 2013 was one of our most ground-breaking releases. Quick Analysis provided immediate views of various visualization options and reduced the time to add them on your data, Chart Recommendations used intelligent heuristics to suggest charts, and Automatic Relationship Detection allowed users to more easily analyze data stored in separate tables. The charting functionality provided live preview, gorgeous styles, richer data labels, and easier ways to add chart elements, apply styles, and filter with user interfaces directly on the charts. 

Quick Analysis in Excel 2013 Recommended Charts in Excel 2013

Richer Interactivity

Part of my role at Microsoft involves presenting on various topics to stakeholders, and increasingly most of these include data visualizations. Only a few years back, I remember creating presentations with snapshots of charts pasted in as images, and carrying a notepad with interesting data nuggets that others might ask about. Later, as I got more “sophisticated”, the appendix of these presentations would contain numerous slides, each with an interesting snippet that someone might ask about, and I could jump to the relevant one to dig in deeper. For the very important presentations, these slides were printed out beforehand, together with printouts of the underlying data that someone could go through on the spot to answer questions that’d come up.

Data visualizations inherently invite questions. And not just the simple ones, but deep insightful ones, that go beyond making better point decisions to having a deeper understanding of how the underlying system behaves. Having an environment where we can test our hypotheses quickly utilizes the best of our creativity and learnings, making us effective participants instead of mere spectators, full on drivers instead of backseat passengers giving directions once in a while.

To enable such experiences, Excel 2010 introduced Slicers, an interactive way to filter data within Excel, and Excel 2013 introduced Timelines to make it trivial to compare data over different time period. 

Slicers in Excel 2010 Timeline in Excel 2013

Excel 2013 also introduced Power View, and with it brought beautiful interactivity to visualizations and more fluid exploration capabilities.

Power View in Excel 2013

With Power View, customers can create dashboards of interactive visualizations that provide instant answers to variety of questions. This capability has resonated well with our customers, one of whom mentioned the rigidity of static snapshots during meetings has been replaced by the “Power View lifestyle”, their term for the transformational way of presenting and using information.

We are very excited to have introduced Q&A as part of the Power BI launch. This innovative experience makes it even easier to understand your data by providing a natural language experience that interprets your question and immediately serves up the correct answer on the fly in the form of an interactive chart or graph. These visualizations change dynamically as you modify the question, creating a truly interactive experience with your data.


Visualizations on All Data

In addition, both data volumes and the types of data customers want to visualize have expanded as well.

Excel 2013 also introduced the Data Model, opening the door for workbooks that contained significantly larger datasets than before, with richer way to express business logic directly within the workbook.

Increasingly, we have access to geospatial data, and recently introduced Power Map brings new 3D visualization tool for mapping, exploring, and interacting with geographical and temporal data to Excel, enabling people to discover and share new insights such as trends, patterns, and outliers in their data over time. In addition, with Power Map, users can easily capture and distribute their insights in the form of an interactive movie, telling compelling stories about their data.


Power Map in Excel 2013

Visualizations Everywhere

As customers are creating insights and sharing them, we have also invested in ensuring SharePoint 2013 and Office 365 provide full fidelity rendering as the desktop client so their products remain beautiful wherever it’s consumed.

What’s Next?

The resurgence of importance of data visualization in this decade, and rise of more form factors where these will be consumed have made this an exciting field once again. Deeper interactivity that blend analysis and visualizations even more fluidly, newer types of visualizations that enable you to see deeper insights more easily, richer experiences on the devices customers use most, and great storytelling experiences are just a few of the areas we’re investing in to make sure Office remains the productivity apps of choice as our customer needs evolve.

Eran Megiddo
Partner Director of PM
Microsoft Office – Analytics and Presentation Services

 Ashvini Sharma
Principal Group Program Manager 
Office Data Experiences