In the latest release of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant (February 2019), an annual publication that researches the leading analytics and business intelligence platforms, Microsoft established itself as the clear market leader in terms of completeness of vision and ability to execute it, ahead of Tableau and Qlik. According to the report:
Microsoft is a Leader. It has a comprehensive and visionary product roadmap aimed at globalizing and democratizing Power BI for all analytics use cases. At the same time, it continues to demonstrate strong uptake and global adoption of Power BI, with high levels of customer satisfaction.
The utility of this information becomes clear when deciding which software to use for creating dashboards and reports. Each has its own benefits and constraints that influence the quality of the product you are creating.
Gartner’s findings are interesting, although not particularly surprising. Over the past year, Power BI has increasingly become a favoured tool within our projects that we like to use when designing dashboards.
Here, I wish to outline 5 reasons why I think Power BI stands out from the alternatives.
First of all, Power BI offers the ability to connect to data from a remarkable number of sources. In the very same report, a user can import a CSV or Excel spreadsheet, connect to a SQL database, load data from Google Analytics and scrape a table from the web. When connecting to a database, users have the choice of importing the data into Power BI or establishing a direct query for data that requires frequent refresh. Furthermore, Analysis Service (SSAS) users can access their tabular data or multidimensional models using an import or live connection. In fact, there are over 90 data sources available to connect to, including flat files, folders, databases, online/cloud services, websites, R and Python scripts and more. This means that Power BI can become a place that not only visualises your data, but also centralises information from multiple sources into one place.
After connecting to a data source, the next step is to prepare data for visualisation and analysis. The in-tool Power Query Editor is an extremely powerful solution for transforming and cleaning data. Based on the M language, the Power Query Editor provides a user interface for managing, manipulating and enriching data to their preferences, including the creation of new tables, filtering and subsetting existing ones, merging and appending multiple tables together, pivoting and transposing columns and rows, and so on, all within a couple of clicks. Each change is recorded as a step that can quickly be removed or reordered. To make an assumption, I would say that almost all conceivable data preparation needs are covered, basic or advanced, including the ability to run R or Python scripts.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Power BI for a beginner is its short learning curve. Although, in many ways, Power BI is a complex and sophisticated tool, the software does well in creating a simple and satisfying user experience that is fairly intuitive and requires little coding. To create a chart, simply drag and drop the one you want onto the canvas, then drag the required fields to populate it. Meanwhile, in the background, Power BI automatically detects data types and relationships between tables, making it easy to create models that drive your analysis. Users can swiftly drill down or aggregate up a data hierarchy and filter or highlight charts at the click of a mouse. For more advanced reports, users can create calculated tables, columns and measures using the DAX language (Data Analysis Expressions), however, the learning curve is reasonably high. That said, there is an engaged and active online community that can help solve specific problems.
The best dashboards are the ones that not only convey information well but are also aesthetically appealing to the eye. Power BI offers a large amount of design flexibility that facilitates the creation of eye-catching interactive reports. One of the first rules of data visualisation is to choose the right chart for the data; Power BI has various types of visualisations available, the majority of which can be formatted as desired. Users can customise the position and size of a visual to the exact pixel, while altering the transparency and colour of data points, text, shapes, borders and backgrounds. If the default colours and visualisations are not sufficient, you can import a custom visual from a sizeable community marketplace or file and import themes to change default colour settings; that said, the flexibility and utility of custom visuals is more limited. You can also insert shapes that can be used as sections or header bars, and images that can become buttons or backgrounds. The user has a large amount of control over the interactivity of visuals as well, including the ability to create report page tooltips. All things considered, Power BI offers great freedom in terms of design. For examples of our dashboards, see below.
Perhaps the main reason why Microsoft has become leader is because their development team has committed to monthly updates of the software that keeps the product continually improving. The updates aren’t small either. Every month an impressive list of new features are added - some of my recent favourites include advanced colour controls, bookmarks, report page tooltips and smart alignment guides. The team announces the latest features in a monthly blog post, accompanied with a YouTube video to explain and demonstrate, providing transparency to the community. The community, in turn, submit ideas to the Power BI website, where the best ideas are upvoted and seen by the development team, who try to implement the ideas. The result is a vibrant and engaged community, a development team open to feedback and a product that is constantly improving. If it continues, it is hard to see how the competition will be able to keep up.
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