4 Alternatives to Bar Charts in Power BI

Don’t you hate how whenever you buy something online, you see algorithm ads for days/weeks/months afterwards for that same product?

It’s like that big AI Skynet hivemind living in Jeff Bezo’s basement, while very smart, isn’t necessary intelligent. You have bought, say, a chandelier, and now the Amazon/Google monster thinks:

“they bought one chandelier, and haven’t returned it, or left a bad review, therefore they must want MORE chandeliers. Bombard them with chandelier ads! Money money capitalism singularity sell to the humans”.

It has LOST the thread of our chandelier story. We don’t need another chandelier once we’ve bought one (usually, I don’t know your lighting needs situation). What we need to buy is maybe special-sized lightbulbs for that chandelier, or we need a guide to figure out how to install it. Or we need some kind of special duster to clean it.

We need a different tool. We bought the tool that holds light sources. Now we may need the light sources, or an installation guide tool, or a cleaning tool.

This is why it’s SO important, when you are building something, to actually know the needs of the person/people that will be using it.

This is why we need charts other than regular ol’ Bar/Column Charts. While easy and useful, sometimes something else is better.

In the last two editions of People-Friendly Power BI, we learned 5 Essential methods for making great Bar Charts in Power BI (things you should do *every* time you make a bar chart) and 5 Advanced methods to make Bar Charts amazing.

We’re ending our Bar Chart series (for now) with 4 Alternatives to Bar Charts. A couple of these are variations of bar/column charts (they still use bars) but have important differences, and a couple are completely different chart types.

Alternative 1: Overlapping Bar Charts

True, we’re still in the Bar Chart part of the data visualization world with an Overlapping Bar Chart, but it serves a whole different purpose than a regular bar chart.

While a regular bar chart allows us to compare categories of something really easily, an overlapping bar chart lets us do this PLUS show how a subset of data relates to the whole.

This chart type is VERY alternative in the Power BI world because it’s NOT a chart type that comes with Power BI. It has to be hacked using Power BI’s formatting options. It’s not hard once you know how. I try not to use external visuals and all their issues.

If you’d like to learn about how to make an Overlapping Bar Chart, get yourself on the VIP List for the Evergreen Data Visualization Academy. I create the Power BI tutorials there and we have one on how to make Overlapping Bars.

Alternative 2: Waterfall Charts

Waterfall charts are a different form of bar/column chart. Instead of each column starting at the 0 point on the y-axis, each bar either rises (or falls) from where the previous bar ends. It’s fantastic way to show how different elements or factor contribute to an increase (or decrease) of a metric.

Waterfall charts come as a “stock” option in Power BI. I customized it by formatting the heck out of it, adding dynamic colored value labels and of course a great descriptive title.

Alternative 3: Lollipops!

Sometimes a regular bar chart IS the right chart for your users and the insight you are trying to communicate from your data, but bar chart fatigue is a real thing.

Change things up with a Lollipop Chart, which is still excellent for comparing categories of something (just like a bar or column chart), but is a little easier on the eyes AND emphasizes the value more visually. A dot that represents the number gives more emphasize to that number.

Lollipops don’t come stock with Power BI, and there are some custom visuals you can add to make them (all with limited formatting), but why go out and get a visual when a Lollipop Chart is totally doable (and easy) to do in Power BI?

Vertical Lollipops (columns) are totally doable and easy. I’ve alllllmost figured out Horizontal Dumbbells (without resorting to adding in an external visual). Almost.

If you’d like to learn about how to make a Lollipop Chart, get yourself on the VIP List for the Evergreen Data Visualization Academy. I create the Power BI tutorials there and we have one on how to make Lollipop Chart.

Alternative 4: Dumbbell Dot Plots

Sometimes, people try and use Bar Charts to show the difference between two metrics across categories, and they always end up with those charts with a ton of bars that are impossible to decipher with a lot of work. It’s a mess. A Mess.

If your message is about the difference, then just show the difference, and emphasize that difference. Dumbbell dot plot charts are great at doing this. They focus the visual on just the data points and the differences between them.

This is another chart type that Power BI doesn’t come with, and while there are external visuals that will make these, they can be made with an easy Power BI hack.

If you’d like to learn about how to make a Dumbbell Dot Plot, get yourself on the VIP List for the Evergreen Data Visualization Academy. I create the Power BI tutorials there and we have one on how to make a Dumbbell Dot Plot.

Now you have 4 options to change things up and visualize bar/column chart data in different ways to tell the stories in the data better. That’s what it’s all about.

A Power BI Holiday Music Dashboard!

Happy holidays!

I’ve been playing with Power BI and Spotify music player embeds the last little bit to see if I could get music embeds to show up in an attractive way (and have the color formatting of everything change for every song.

Here’s what I’ve come up with (and will likely expand and enhance this next year).
I hope you enjoy clicking and listening to different songs.

Holiday Music 2023

See you in 2024!



Five ADVANCED ways to make your Bar Charts amazing in Power BI

We’re going to talk more about bar charts everyone. Contain your excitement.

Okay… okay… let that excitement OUT! We’re talking about BAR CHARTS, after all!

Last time on People-Friendly Power BI, we talked about the five essential ways to make your bar charts the best in Power BI.

Namely, great titles (dynamic ones!), better labels and taking out chart clutter are all relatively easy to do in Power BI if you know where to click, and you WANT to do ALL of these things to make your bar charts easier and better for your users.

In this post though, we’re leveling up a TON. We’re going to take our simple (yet effective) bar charts and add features that not only make our charts EASIER for our viewers and give them MORE data, but makes people (like your boss) sit up and say “I had no idea a Bar Chart could DO that in Power BI!”

First let’s remind ourselves about where we left off in our last Bar Chart post with a visual.

A beautiful bar chart, right? This should be the bare minimum for all your bar charts. Easy labelling, no chart clutter, and a title that tells a story.

Now let’s explore multiple ways to take a bar chart like this to the next level.

1. MORE Dynamic text and calculations

We finished off our last post talking about creating awesome dynamic titles for our bar charts that CHANGE and tell a story as data changes. Well, Dynamic titles can tell simple stories but dynamic text can tell complicated stories. With a bit more work, you can perform ANY calculation in your data, and communicate it effectively in a title (or anywhere else).

Here’s an example. Let’s say that we not only want to highlight what province has the highest percentage of food security, but HOW MUCH HIGHER that percentage is that the value in the province with the LOWEST value?

It’s doable! We can add a subtitle with that extra insight.

So, this chart title is now not only telling MORE of a story to viewers, but it’s doing work for them. It’s figuring out the difference between the highest and lowest values instantly and communicating it FOR your viewers, so they don’t have to!

Let’s say our data changes. No problem!

Remember, what story and insights your viewers need can only be known by TALKING to them. Go talk to them and create dynamic titles that will knock all their socks off.

We can literally put ANYTHING we want in our titles, and have it change as our data changes.

2. Benchmarks!

We can also add in Benchmark lines to easily show what bars in our bar chart are exceeding (or not) a certain value. Managers LOVE benchmark lines as they can instantly tell if that benchmark value is being met.

In this example, we have a benchmark line at the average percentage of food insecurity:

While we can’t format benchmark lines very extensively in Power BI (at least not yet), they can still be useful in providing some context for your viewers.

Conditional Colors

We can also color our bars based on conditions. This bar chart colors the bars of provinces that exceed the average differently that those below the average.

It’s a great easy way to really draw attention to the data you want your viewers to focus on.

4. Hack your labels (and more)

Power BI is designed so that we as designers have to do things in a particular way. It’s not designed for “out-of-the-box” thinking, but that doesn’t meant that we can’t hack Power BI to do things it’s not designed to do.

With a bit of time with the program and creative thinking, you can do all sorts of cool things.

Maybe your boss wants show your n-values or sample sizes right there on the bar chart in addition to the percentages. It’s not a built-in option in Power BI, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hack it:

Or maybe we want to get rid of our Y-axis completely and put our Province names right IN our bars. There’s a hack for that:

How about popping our Y-axis labels OVER our bars? We have the hacking technology! 🙂

Essentially, even though Microsoft puts a ton of limitations on how we can build and format charts, we can still hack our charts into creative variations.

5. MORE Data (but only when needed)

You never want to hit your viewers with too much data. Too much data at once makes charts and dashboards LESS usable, as your viewers will spend a ton of time figuring out (or just looking for) the data and insights that are relevant to them. We want to give them a high level look at the data and then allow them to delve deeper into the details IF they want to.

Give them that choice.

One way to give them that choice is by adding customizing the tooltips that show up when a viewer hovers their mouse over a bar. They have access to the data if they need it, but it’s not splayed all over the dashboard by default.

In this example, the detailed data shows food insecurity levels in each province over time (and you can incorporate dynamic text into these as well).

As amazing and awesome that tooltips can be, one important thing to remember is that screenreaders do not read tooltips, so they are not the most accessible feature in Power BI.

An alternative could be what’s called a Drill Through filter. With a Drill Through filter, someone can click on a bar and get access to more data about that bar on a new custom filtered page that screenreaders CAN read.

In the below examples, some clickable text shows up when a bar (any bar!) is clicked on, allowing your viewers to access more data about that province (or whatever your bars are about).

Now you have 5 different advanced ways to make your bar charts more useful for your viewers in Power BI.

Even though you now have great examples of how to make bar charts awesome (and essential fixes you need to make to the Power BI defaults), you may also way to move away from bar charts sometimes.

Next time on People-Friendly Power BI, we’ll talk about alternatives to bar charts that we can make in Power BI.

Five ESSENTIAL ways to make your Bar Charts the best in Power BI.

Who fell asleep when they saw that this edition of People-Friendly Power BI was about Bar Charts? You can admit it, I won’t think less of you.

Bar Charts are the unsung heroes of the data visualization world. When you ask anyone what their fave type of chart is, “Bar Chart!” is never the answer.

However, we all use them, don’t we? Chances are, if you’ve visualized data for an annual report, a powerpoint, or a dashboard, you’ve most definitely made a bar chart.

This is because they are EASY to understand. Any audience can understand them. The bigger the bar, the higher the number it represents. Humans are *really* good at comparing the length of bars and it doesn’t matter if the human is a theoretical physis Nobel prize winner or a kid looking at a bar chart about halloween candy.

Bar charts, as easy as they are, aren’t perfect when we make one in Power BI.

This edition of People-Friendly Power BI is all about the ESSENTIAL changes you should make to Bar Charts when you make them in Power BI. Power BI makes garbage bar charts by default… you gotta tweak those bar babies into something your Power BI dashboard users are going to love.

Let’s look at the kind of default bar chart Power BI gives us when we add data into the bar chart visual.

This chart is about food insecurity in Canada’s provinces.

It’s recognizable as a bar chart (yay!) but it’s not as good as it could be, so here are 5 essential modifications to make to really make your bar charts shine.

1. A good descriptive title

Tell your users what your bar chart is about. This is the most important part of any chart (yup, even more important that those bars). You want to have a descriptive title that describes what your chart is about and ideally what the main key takeaway is.

This way, even if your chart is hard to understand (but let’s make sure it isn’t!) your viewers will still get the point.

Delete the awful default title Power BI gave the chart and write out a better one that describes your data. Make it bigger and more visible. People need to see it. Always left align your title and keep it at the top. Our brains and eyes in the western world are programmed to start reading content at the upper-left.

2. Add value labels and enhance your Y-axis

By default, Power BI gives us an x-axis with values, and faint gridlines that give our viewers a little bit of help estimating how large each of our bars is.

While this may work for some bar charts, namely those where you just want to show that some categories of data are larger than others (with no one caring about exact values), most of the time, if you’re comparing categories of data (which is what bar and column charts are amazing at showing), viewers will also want to know the exact size of the bars so they can easily figure out the differences between them.

Add value labels, and since these are percentage amounts, format them as percentages. Also increase the font on your Y-axis so those data categories can be seen easily.

3. Take out chart clutter

There are a few things on this chart that don’t add anything to the message we’re trying to communicate. In addition getting rid of our axes titles, we can also remove the x-axis itself. We don’t need the x-axis labels anymore, as our bars are labelled directly.

4. Give your Y-Axis more space (if needed)

Our bar chart is looking pretty darn good, except for our Y-Axis. We can’t see the full province name for Newfoundland and Labrador. Power BI just cuts it off with a “…”

If this is happening with your bar charts, go into the Y-Axis options and look for a Max Area Width slider. You can tell Power BI to devote as much as 50% of the width of your chart to your Y-Axis labels. Then long items like Newfoundland and Labrador will fit (and god, it looks so much better).

5. A Dynamic Title

Our last technique seems advanced, but really isn’t. It’s also something that every chart and dashboard needs but so few have. Dynamic titles are titles that *change* as your data changes (and we’re talking dashboards, so there’s a good chance the data will always be changing).

Dynamic titles are world changing for your viewers. If you’ve done your job and know what your users need to know from your dashboard (always the first step in dashboard creation), you can create really simple DAX measures that let you highlight key insights with titles. Titles that change when data changes.

If Alberta has the highest rate of food insecurity, the title can call that out:

If it’s New Brunswick, the title can say that.

Now we know 5 essential ways to make your Power BI bar charts not only better, but *easier* for your Power BI report users.

Next time, we’ll learn at least 5 *advanced* ways to make bar charts better by taking them to the next level.

Yes, you CAN tell narrative data stories with dashboards!

Hey there!

When I was young(er) I was very petrified of public speaking.

You may have this fear too, and can relate to the overwhelming anxiety that used to hit me before I was due to speak (even just in front of a small school class). The annual public speaking project we had to do every year is something I dreaded. My stomach would feel sick. I’d sweat and have chills at the same time. I felt like I was going to pass out. This was even BEFORE I stood up to speak.

The usual tips of “just pretend the audience isn’t there” or “look at the back of the room” or “find a friend in the audience and speak to them” or even “imagine the audience naked” (hot, but not useful) didn’t work, at all.

You know what worked, and worked better than I could even imagine? A paradigm shift of how I thought about the audience.

I randomly read a tip somewhere (I wish I could remember where) that since public speaking is *such* a common fear, most of an audience is secretly (or not so secretly) in awe of a speaker who can stand up and present.

That ONE TIP shifted my whole mental approach to public speaking.

Instead of thinking about how nervous and anxious *I* was, I realized that I could think about how the *audience* was feeling, and draw strength (emotional and figurative) from them. There was a GREAT chance that every time I stood up in front of a group, a lot of them were thinking “Wow… I wish *I* could do that…”

The larger the group, the better. In larger groups, even more people would be thinking that, and I knowing that gave me confidence. I used that confident energy that THEY were giving me.

I fed off their energy, like an energy vampire:

Yes, that is actually me dressed up last Halloween as “Energy Vampire” Colin Robinson from “What We Do In The Shadows”…

That ONE realization TOTALLY changed the public speaking game for me. It wasn’t overnight, but each time I spoke in front of an audience I got a little more comfortable and sure of myself.

I had been approaching public speaking in a certain way (the way most people do) because that’s just how it was done. I was focusing on how *I* was feeling instead of what my *audience* was feeling.

This type of paradigm shift is what’s needed in the data dashboard world. Most data dashboard professionals approach dashboards in a certain way and with certain restrictions and preconceived notions about how you can (or can not) communicate data.

There are two kinds of dashboards

There are generally two kinds of dashboards, exploratory and narrative (sometimes called explanatory). Some will say there are more (such as operational, strategic, and analytical), but it’s just semantics. The audience may change with these, but not the overall functionality.

Exploratory dashboards are ones where data is explored, and are most often used by data analysts to suss out stories in the data. It’s like panning for gold in a river. You can spend all day sifting that (data) sand in a river bed and only get a couple nuggets of (insightful) gold.

Narrative dashboards are the ones where identified stories about the data are put on display. It’s like taking your nuggets of gold and polishing them up and putting them in a display case for people to ooh and ahh over.

In the data dashboard world, unfortunately, the consensus seems to be that dashboards are only appropriate for exploratory needs. This belief is what has resulted in dashboards with a ton of different metrics all showing up at once with many filters and slicers for users to struggle through.

Like these, which are highlighted on Microsoft’s “What is a Data Dashboard” webpage:

These are prime examples of exploratory dashboards, and let’s be frank, 99% of all dashboards are exploratory. If your dashboard only reveals data stories when your users click around and filter and slice data certain ways, it’s not narrative at all. The narrative is there, but you’re making THEM find that narrative. You are making THEM pan for gold nuggets. They do NOT have time for that.

The solution is narrative dashboards, or dashboards that KNOW what users are looking for and GIVES it to them. Whether that’s one short story or an epic novel with chapters and character development arcs and a 2nd act dilemma and a 3rd act climactic resolution.

The data dashboard world still operates with the assumption that dashboards can NOT tell stories, because it’s impossible to know what ALL your users may want to know AND that dashboard data is dynamic, so it’s impossible to tell a story with it.

Both of these assertions are false and lazy.

Your audience is more important than your data.

If you don’t know your users, that needs to be addressed. The first thing you need to know when designing a good effective dashboard product is the audience. NOT the data.

Let’s repeat that.

The first thing any dashboard developer should know is the AUDIENCE. Everything revolves around knowing what they NEED.

If the data doesn’t support those needs, maybe the dashboard shouldn’t be built at all.

Knowing your audience requires talking to them, or someone who knows them really well. What questions do THEY care about that the data can answer? How well do they know the data being funneled into the dashboard? What do they need to DO with the insights (stories) a dashboard can tell them?

Knowing these things allows us to build a dashboard that answers questions quickly. No hunting for nuggets of gold. No one has time to sit by a river sifting that sand.

If someone can’t open up a dashboard and find the answer they are looking for in a few seconds (or a complicated insight in less than a minute), it’s NOT a good dashboard.


My own personal goal when I build a dashboard is to get a viewer in and out of the tool as quickly as possible. If they are spending time searching for the gold nuggets they need, I’ve failed. They have their regular work to do, and they need quick insights to make a decision or move a process along. They can’t be sitting by a river all day looking for that gold.

Talking to dashboard users is not a normal practice. A quick google or search on Linkedin about what one needs to be a great data analyst or a great dashboard developer almost NEVER includes talking to users. These lists include learning SQL, Python, javascript, M Language, DAX, etc., etc., etc. It’s all data and code. It’s never about people and what they need.

Knowing what the people using your dashboards need from them is the first step. It’s the ONLY first step.

If you’re thinking that a dashboard can get unweildy and overly complicated if there are a lot of user groups that all need different things from a dashboard, you’re totally right.

If you’re trying to make a dashboard that answers the pressing questions of multiple disparate user groups, you are doomed to failure. Trying to please all of these groups will mean making compromises and you’ll end up with a dashboard that maybe everyone can use, but no one will be happy with.

At the very least, if you MUST have a dashboard with different users, create different pages for different groups… but ideally, you’ll want different dashboards for different user groups. They can all use the same data, but it’ll be displayed differently depending on the user group.

This user-focused approach ensures that dashboards and charts and every data reporting tool exists to answer user needs. This is even MORE important when we consider (and we should ALWAYS consider) different cultural, racial, and identity contexts. WE don’t know our users’ experiences. Only THEY know them. We have to LEARN from them.

It’s EASY to tell data stories with dynamic data.

On to the 2nd “problem” of narrative dashboards being impossible to build because the data feeding into them is dynamic and one can’t tell stories if the insights are changing.

Seriously, I just read a LinkedIn post from a data communication “expert” the other day that said one couldn’t tell stories with dashboards “because sometimes a metric may be increasing, and the next day it may be decreasing.”

This is, frankly, bulls–t.

Have these people used a computer program in the last decade? Applications built for data visualization (Power BI, Tableau, R, and more) and even those where data viz is icing on top (Excel, for instance) ALL have ways to look at what data is doing and tell a story with it, even when it’s different every day (or hour, or second).

We can literally get a dashboard to do calculations (simple or very complex) and spit out a narrative title/sentence/paragraph that accounts for what the data looks like AND can generate an entirely new title/sentence/paragraph the very next day/hour/minute. It’s not just narrative text either, but visual colors can change, graphics can change, everything can change and adapt to what the data is doing.

It’s not even hard. When I teach half-day workshops to people entirely brand new to Power BI and we have 10 minutes to fill at the end, I teach them the basics of dynamic story-telling..

In 10 minutes. To people absolutely brand new to the software.

It’s not only extremely possible to build narratives and story-telling into dashboards, but if dashboards DON’T do this (which most don’t), they probably aren’t used as much as they should be.

In summary, don’t let anyone tell you that a dashboard can’t be a narrative tool to communicate stories about data.

If someone is saying this, they just haven’t thought about data and communicating it with an end-user in mind enough.

They need a user-oriented paradigm shift.

They need to STOP thinking about THEIR experience with a dashboard and SHIFT to thinking about the experience of their USERS. A whole new world opens up with that paradigm shift.


TraversData.com | LinkedIn | Instagram | Threads

Put the People in your data first.

Hey everyone,

We have a bit of a departure for this issue of People-Friendly Power BI. While we always talk about how to make Power BI easier to use for our dashboard and report audiences (the people!), this issue is about the people in our data.

Those of you (hi!) who I’ve worked with, or have taught Power BI to (or even been following this newsletter for a bit) know that this newsletter has the name it does because for me, the most difficult and stupid part of working with data is how BADLY it’s communicated to people. It is my #1 pet peeve.

You’ve put all this money and time into collecting data, cleaning data, analyzing data, and then you get to the communicating / reporting stage and …. you do this part badly and all that money and time on the previous steps is basically wasted.

Either data is visualized badly (ignoring the needs of the audience) or it’s communicated by someone who is too techy (sorry techies!) and while they have the “hard” data skills, their people skills are not stellar, and communication breaks down.

Frequently, the issue is BOTH. Bad visuals AND bad communication.

We Gotta Figure It Out GIF - We Gotta Figure It Out Communicate GIFs

I named this newsletter People-Friendly Power BI because I make Power BI friendly to you, who may need to start using it (or continue using it) to develop reports but ALSO for your audience so they’ll LOVE your reports.

People are important to me. They are the most important part of data. They make decisions with data. Use data to move along a process or project. They ARE the data.

Data is people.

(I’m refraining from putting a gif here of Charlton Heston yelling “It’s People!!! It’s made from people!!!”) You’re welcome.

So, what do I mean by this “data is people” statement? Of course it’s people, you say. Data is about people.

We SAY this. Data people SAY this. But do we pay attention to it? Way too often, data is analyzed and displayed WITHOUT thinking about the people and the lives that make up that data. Way too often, a data analyst is trying to make a good chart, or trying to find a pattern or story in the data. It becomes just numbers.

Let’s use an example.

Here’s two charts made with the same data. One is a bar chart, one is a beeswarm (some people call it a jitter plot, but that’s less fun).

Left: Bar chart showing pay disparities between 4 groups of restaurant workers. Right: Jitter plot showing the same data.

The bar chart is aggregating everything together and visualizing the average for each group. Nevermind that a bar chart isn’t the best way to show an average, lots of people use bars for averages… look at the Groups… and imagine if instead of Group A,B,C,D we had races listed instead. Some conclusions, generalizations, and stereotypes would jump out immediately.

The beeswarm is the exact same data, but the individual data points are shown, and they show that the “story” isn’t so simple as the one being told (or being assumed by the audience) by the bars. The averages are really NOT the story. The spread and variance are the story.

(Charts by Eli Holder, via Dr. Stephanie Evergeen. Read more about how visualizing data in a society with hundreds of years of built up systemic racism can make things worse here.)

The data is people.

Let’s take this one step farther, and it’s a step we should all take constantly. It’s a step that anyone working with data should think about. The data isn’t numbers (or words). Any data worth working with (in my opinion) is capturing the lived experiences of people. Their births, their lives, their deaths.

I recently worked with Mamow Ahyamowen, which is an epidemiology alliance of First Nations governed health service organizations based in northern Ontario. Their goal is to provide health information to communities that they can use to work toward health equity.

Before I even started working with them, I attended a virtual session where they presented some health data (specifically mortality data), but before launching into all the numbers of deaths and co-morbidities and how their mortality data compares with province-wide data, they paused.

They paused to reflect on the nature of the data, who the data was about, and what it meant to all of them. When I asked them about it, staff shared that this practice was inspired by teachings from Elders and Knowledge Keepers who have been involved in their work.

More organizations (and the “data world” as a whole) need to do this. Data is not just data. It’s lived experiences, ancestors and history.

Mamow Ahyamowen’s health data is perhaps the perfect example of this. Indigenous communities in Canada (and all over North America, and the world) have lived through centuries of land theft, oppression, and systemic racism. Families and communities were ripped apart throughout the 19th and 20th century and thousands of children were abused and killed in government-run and church-run residential schools. It doesn’t end there; colonialism has changed forms but continues to affect the lives of Indigenous people to this day.

All this affects the health of communities in a big way.

I trained a lot of great people at Mamow Ahyamowen in getting started with Power BI, and these were training sessions that used their data. Data about their families and ancestors.

So, the first thing we did at the start of every session was the same thing they did during the webinar, like all their meetings where data plays a part. We paused and honored the people and lives captured by this data.

We also built a slide like this into the start of the presentation:

This wasn’t lip service. We shared links and phone numbers to mental health and crisis support lines. Because exploring data that tells a story about how your community and family has been abused for generations is traumatic.

I really wish more organizations and data people would think about things like this.

We, the people who collect, analyze and communicate data, cannot in good conscious ignore the stories in the data. We can not present it “without bias” (which is impossible), no matter how much we try. The bias is implicit and systemic.

But we can expose the bias, know why it exists and counteract it, alongside the racism systems that perpetuate it. We can also think mindfully about the lives and communities the data speaks to. Context matters. Data is useless without context.

So this is what I’m doing.. because I think I can use my privilege and skills to help in some meaningful way.

What are you doing?

More about Mamow Ahyamowen:

Building on the success of the mortality analysis discussed above, Mamow Ahyamowen is working on three new projects that will explore chronic conditions, mental health and addictions, and injuries. You can stay up to date with their work by signing up for their newsletter.

More about Maureen Gustafson

(Maureen helped me write and lent her thoughtful editorial eyes to this post):
Maureen Gustafson is a member of Couchiching First Nation with mixed Ojibwe and settler roots. She grounds herself first and foremost in her relationships as an auntie, sister, daughter, cousin, and friend. Maureen holds a Master of Public Health and is privileged to serve Mamow Ahyamowen as a Knowledge Translation & Exchange Specialist.

How to design in Power BI (and anything else) like a freakin’ rockstar.

Hey you. How’s it going?

This is my mom, Marguerite (or Margie, as everyone knew her).

Mom passed away a few years ago, and I still miss her every day, and she factors hugely into today’s post about design.

Mom was an x-ray and ultrasound technician. For over 40 years… from the late 1950s to when she retired in 2005. She worked with a huge range of technology over a lifetime of giving x-rays and ultrasounds to tens of thousands of people.

Adults, kid, famous hockey players.

She was such an expert in her field that by her 40s, she could spot things some radiologists (like, doctors trained to read x-rays) missed. Young doctors would ask her to check over x-rays sometimes, just in case.

So, she knew EVERYTHING about x-rays and ultrasounds, but also managing an office (because she’d usually have to do that too) and putting people at ease (both kids and adults) because they had to be calm and motionless for the scans to be clear.

Also, mom never could figure out home computers. Deciphering them was like learning a new language for her, and by the time there was one in their house, she was at the point in life where she didn’t need to.

She’d often say “I’ve somehow survived without using a home computer so far… I’ll keep doing what I’m doing”.

Not to say she didn’t try, but at some point the effort exerted wasn’t worth the benefits to her. She didn’t need email.. she’d phone us when she wanted to talk.

I miss those calls so much.

I’m sure you know someone like my Mom. Someone who is an absolute ROCKSTAR at what they’ve dedicated years and years to. Someone who can tell you EVERYTHING about that subject, whether it’s x-rays, or event production, or e-commerce, or app development, or evaluation survey creation, or whatever.

I’m a rockstar with visualizing data with Excel and Power BI. It’s not bragging if it’s true, right?

How does this relate to design in Power BI? People-friendly Power BI? Or in anything else. Maybe you’ve already figured it out.

When you’re designing something (anything), there’s a 99.99% chance you’re gonna be sharing it. You try and design something awesome, because if who you share it with really likes it, they’re gonna share it with others.

It could be your boss sharing it with their boss, and their boss sharing it with your Board of Directors.

Or it’s something (a graphic, a chart, a dashboard, whatever!) you put out on social media with the hopes of it going viral (we’ll ignore the dumpster fire that social media is for now).

The point here is that you are making something for an audience. It’s not going to be only YOU looking at what you’re designing. You are designing for others, and they do not have the same skills that you do.

When designing with Power BI, YOU are a data person. You probably know that data inside and out. You dream about that data (or have nightmares about it).

But, no one else does.

Yet, most Power BI dashboards are designed like their audience are data people. Most of them cram a ton of data onto every page, with no explanation about what the data means, or if a chart is showing something good or bad, or even worse, there’s a giant table of numbers with no explanation why any of them may be important.

Power BI developers design for themselves. If they can understand a dashboard, then it’s awesome… everyone else should “get” it too.

But most Power BI developers are data people. Like, hardcore data people. They know the difference between “On Prem” and “Azure” and why a company should use a Data Lake versus a Data Warehouse (or vice versa). They are AWESOME at what they do… making data work.

They are not good at communicating the messages and information that data to others (Sorry data people. you know I’m right). If you have a data person who is the life of the party, belting out karaoke tunes, having regular conversations with regular people, you have a unicorn on your hands (and that unicorn will probably be promoted soon, as they can provide a bridge between technology and people).

Unicorns are super rare. That’s why they’re called unicorns.

You NEED to understand and be able to talk to people to design great Power BI reports that people will USE regularly, if not LOVE.

That’s why, whenever I design a report for any audience that isn’t data people (for a CEO, or a Board, or a department full of people who’s job is NOT data, or something that will be on a website, or shared on social media), I think of my mom.

Would mom understand this dashboard? Could she look at it and immediately know what it was saying? What the key insights were? We’re talking seconds here. Would she know everything she needed to know within seconds?

This is YOUR audience when you design. My mom (metaphorically).

Your audience is people who are excellent at what they do, which is almost certainly not data. People who need to use your dashboard (or chart, or whatever) and get something from it immediately.

They don’t have the time (or the desire) to click around and filter things different ways and waste a bunch of time looking for a number.

You HAVE to remember that.

I’m not saying I’m perfect at this. When I get feedback about a dashboard, it sometimes is like “Joe, I love this… but I couldn’t quite figure out …” and as soon as I hear that I listen VERY closely to what they couldn’t figure out. I don’t explain to them where to find the information they need, I redesign and GIVE them the information, so they don’t have to go looking for it.

It’s what Mom would’ve loved.

We’re not designing for data people. We’re designing for normal people.

6 reasons why you should not use external Power BI visuals

Hey everyone! Happy 2023!

Here’s my daughter from our trip to British Columbia last summer, looking not-to-pleased in a double-kayak:

May be an image of 1 person, nature and lake

You’d think she’d be pleased, right? We were out on the water in Deep Cove, B.C., on an absolutely beautiful day.. and she LOVES kayaking.


This time however, the kayak rental place had a rule that anyone under 16 couldn’t pilot a solo kayak. She’d have to share a kayak with an adult. Nevermind that we spent hours and hours every week out on the wilds of Lake Ontario that summer… rules are rules. She’d have to be in a double-kayak.

She was NOT happy about this turn of events. She’s 12. She needs her own her boat, that she can control… not trapped on a double kayak with her father. OH. MY. GOD.

This control issue is what brings me to the topic of this post… using External Visuals in your Power BI reports.

There’s a plethora of free and paid visuals in the Microsoft AppSource resource. It’s a whole ecosystem of visuals. There are developers all over the place building visuals for Power BI and sticking them in the AppSource. I’m very much an outlier for not using them and advocating others not to use them. There are 6 great reasons why below!

Some of them are flashy, some of them are simple… but I haven’t found one yet that I can’t live without, and you can live without them as well.

Here’s why:

1. A Huge Loss of Control.

Hey, Power BI visuals aren’t the best for custom formatting at the best of times. Labels with text? Colored text in legends? Custom label placement so your charts don’t look like a toddler threw numbers at your chart and hoped for the best? These are all dreams in the chart visuals that come “stock” with Power BI.

External visuals? Even less control. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found a cool external visual but didn’t use it because I couldn’t format it to make it easier for my report viewers to interpret the data. External visuals are often (not always, but often) designed how the designer thinks they should look. If they like the formatting, you’re going to get very few formatting options. Change the color of something? NOPE. Change a font size? NOPE. Add a label somewhere? NOPE.

2. Changes can be sudden and break things

Even worse than the loss of control when designing a visual is the loss of control of what happens with that visual in the future.

When Microsoft makes changes to their stock Power BI visuals (which happens slowly), it seems like they make sure that any changes are backwards-compatible.

You don’t always have that safety blanket with external visuals. If a developer decides to change some code so their visual works in a different way… all of a sudden your copy of it that you’ve been using breaks. Even worse, it breaks and you don’t notice it (because a visual doesn’t send you an email when it breaks) but your report users do… and just think you’ve fallen asleep at the wheel.

3. They are removed from AppSource

It doesn’t happen often, but external visuals sometimes get removed from AppSource, either by the developer or by Microsoft.

You have a copy of it on your report, and it won’t break (it’s your own local copy), but good luck trying to build a report with that visual again. You do NOT want to get dependent on an external visual.

4. They can be expensive (for you and your users)

There are free and “premium” visuals on AppSource. It’s usually on a per-user per-month basis, so if you’re at a large organization and need to lots of people to see an external visual, open up your pockets. Wide.

Here’s an example for a Lollipop chart. Further down this post you’ll see that Lollipops are totally doable without an external visual.

If you are sharing your reports with external viewers, guess what? They ALSO have to PAY to see these visuals. Every month.

5. You can probably make them yourself.

External visuals, generally, can be made with the stock visuals of Power BI. There are a lot of stock default visuals that come with Power BI, and they have lots of options for customizing what type of chart you’re actually making.

A Line Chart can be WAY more than just a Line Chart. A Bar Chart doesn’t have to live it’s whole life as a Bar Chart. A Scatterplot has sooo many possibilities.

Dare to dream. It just takes a bit of creativity to bend Power BI to your will and make things yourself (and once you figure out the tricks, it’s so EASY).

Here’s a few example of what I’ve made with stock visuals… and these are all visuals that a lot of Power BI designers use external visuals for, because it seems like they aren’t possible without external visuals…

Overlapping Bars!

Sweet sweet vertical Lollipops!

Strong powerful Dumbbell Dot Plots!

Buzzy Beeswarms!

Timely Calendars!

(Click here to see this in action)

Filled Intersects!

Actually, this one I haven’t seen ANYWHERE, not even in an External visual…

6. You and your users probably don’t need external visuals anyway!

External visuals are usually used when the stock Power BI visuals “don’t do enough”. Designers use them to make overly-complicated visuals when the stock issues can’t.

These are the visuals that usually go viral on social media… they’re fancy, complicated, have lots of data in them… but they’re not very useful or easy to understand. They are Hot Messes.

Yes, I wrote about Hot Messes a few months ago.

Don’t give your dashboard users a Hot Mess. Give them nice and easy (and innovative) visuals that can help them get the info they need, fast.

Yeah, the kayaking was still amazing. Deep Cove, BC… sunset. How can it not be? 🙂

An image of 1 person in a kayak at Deep Cove, BC at sunset.

Tough Love: Microsoft makes Power BI dashboards awful and difficult on mobile. 

Hey there.

My daughter and I have been watching the Star Wars TV series Andor recently, and it has got me thinking about story-centric design.

Andor isn’t a typical Star Wars show.

It’s not about jedis, or lightsabers. I don’t think they’re even mentioned. Vader isn’t mentioned, either. The Emperor is mentioned once, I think (we still have a couple episodes to go).

The point of the show is it’s about the regular people (like us! no magical powers!) who, in fits and starts, against overwhelming odds, plan and finance a rebellion that brings down the Empire.

That’s what you see. The creators of the show has focused the plot to what the story is about and doesn’t let everything else going on in the galaxy (and there’s SO much of it) distract and take away from the story. It’s a small story, within a much larger context. Everyone is already aware of the context, so there’s no sense spending time on it and distracting from the core narrative.

And this, in a roundabout way brings me to the point of this post… that the mobile version of your dashboard should be the Andor of Star Wars.

It should be focused, user-friendly, and free from distractions, and it’s very very RARE to see a mobile version of a dashboard that has these qualities, and it’s mostly Microsoft’s fault. The ENTIRE infrastructure around mobile Power BI reports is not designed for users, at all.

(heck, that’s a big complaint I have about Power BI and those who develop with it in general)

Strap yourself in… we’re about to go on a journey and take everything mobile apart.

What does Microsoft give us for mobile? Not a hell of a lot.

Let’s start off by looking at one of Microsoft’s “sample” dashboards that they provide on their “Learn” site. This is what one of the pages looks like on their “Customer Profitablity” dashboard:

I am NOT a fan of this sample dashboard, and if you’ve been reading my posts a while (or have worked with me in the past) you probably know this already.

In fact, maybe I’ll base a future edition of People-Friendly Power BI just on the screenshot above… considering I can see 10 design and layout deficiencies immediately just from a quick look at that screenshot…

Let’s pretend this is our dashboard… and that we’ve published it to the Power BI service and made it available to our colleagues or other stakeholders.

Want to see what they see when they open it up on their phones?

Everything is very small, very hard to read, and hard to interact with. You can try tapping on a data point with a finger and hope you hit the right one (or even navigate to other pages using the miniscule page controls at the very bottom.

Now, let’s see how this looks if we flip our phone sideways and make people look at your dashboard that way (you’re already making them do extra work just to try and see anything in your report):

It’s not really ANY better, is it? It’s *slightly* larger, but it’s still hard to read anything or tap on anything. There IS a *zoom* feature on the lower right … but again, WHY are you making your viewers do Extra Work just to see the data? A Power BI report on a phone is horrible.

Now, Microsoft *does* have a Power BI app for phones (for both Apple and Android, and probably the Microsoft phone… if that’s still a thing?), and guess what this report looks like using their app.. their app built for phones?

Basically the same right? The navigation buttons along the bottom are a bit more usable now, but otherwise, this report is just as unusable even within the official Microsoft Power BI app!

Know someone who would love to read about making Power BI more user-friendly?

All right… next step is “Optimizing this report for mobile” which is a tool you can use in Power BI Desktop to make customize each page of your report so it’ll look better on a phone. You can make a “mobile” view and move stuff around to fit into a portrait-orientation phone view. Here’s what it looks like:

So, this is a little better… our visuals are a bit more usable now (and we now have to scroll down to see the whole report), and while it’s still not easy to tap on things to get things like tooltips popping up, we’re getting there.

FYI, even IF you have mobile-optimized your report in Power BI Desktop, the above view will ONLY show up in the Power BI app. It’ll STILL look small and cruddy if someone accesses your report without the app.

Design for your medium and your user

So, with all that said, the main issue with this dashboard right now is that it’s NOT a dashboard anymore. A dashboard should be a quick at-a-glance look at high level insights. This is no longer at a glance. This requires scrolling… and there’s not even very many visuals on this dashboard page.

We are using a different medium here. Someone isn’t sitting down at their laptop (or desktop) computer and accessing this mobile report. They are on their phone and maybe need a few bits of data to do their job or make a decision while on the go. They don’t NEED everything on their phone.

This isn’t a dashboard anymore. You user can’t see everything on a page at the same time anymore. This is now a series of charts, mainly looked at on their own. If someone needs to compare one metric with another, it’s probably not going to work on mobile without a chart built with that specific purpose in mind

The ideal way to fix this is to make a report that is designed for mobile first. This will likely require a separate report being built with page sizes that match a phone screen ratio. While Microsoft does allow for formatting changes when setting up a mobile report, it’s not enough to make something actually usable.

Think about what your favorite apps look like on your phone. Maybe it’s facebook, maybe it’s instagram, maybe it’s Gmail, maybe it’s a banking app. NONE of them look like the desktop versions of their websites do they? They are ALL simpler, basic, and easy to use.

Your manager and CEO and Board and customers don’t want dashboards they have to figure out. Make your dashboards people-friendly!

Get rid of (most of the) stuff.

If you have a ton of data and visuals in there (or just make people use the default desktop version, there’s a ton of distractions, everything is too small, and you’re gonna lose people. No one will like viewing your work on their phone.

Talk to your viewers. Find out what they actually need from the mobile version while they are on the go. They likely only need some key numbers or a “snapshot” graph of where things are at present, or if a certain value (or values) are increasing or decreasing.

They likely don’t need to see 2 years of historical breakdown about a metric, or a map of what’s happening with a product/client/widget across the entire United States (or any country), or excessive detail.

Think (and breathe and care) about accessibility

After you figure out what you TRULY need in a mobile version of a Power BI report, you then have to think about accessibility.

Everything is smaller on a phone. Text is smaller. Maps are smaller. Data points are smaller. Data Labels are smaller. While you may be young and have perfect eyesight, a lot of your colleagues may have vision challenges, or just need help. Your manager is likely older than you. Senior management may be in the 50s or 60s.

You want them to LOVE the reports you build them, and they’re gonna need to see things on their phones too. You may be tempted to add a lot of stuff to a mobile report to impress your boss, but guess what? They already hired you because they know you know your stuff. For a mobile report they need key facts. That’s it.

Wow them with the non-mobile report, if you need to. Do not do it on mobile. It’ll make your report harder to use on their phones.

Reduce the Interactivity, the bells, the whistles.. this isn’t the circus!

On Mobile, get rid of the Tooltips and Drill-Through filters. They are hard to access and interact with. If drilling down into data is needed on mobile, put it on a new page and put a big ol’ navigation button to that page so they can see it and access it easily.

Technology Accessibility

Finally – think about your users and the capacity they have for accessing content on their phones.

There are many places in the world (and even large expanses here in North America) with very poor cell service. There are even more places with poor wifi.

If you’ve made a mobile report with tons of visuals and content and data to download, it’s going to take a looooong time for your viewer to access it. So keep your reports as simple as possible. It’ll speed up loading time and your report will be used more.

Let’s summarize!

– Power BI reports look awful on phones. They’re small and inaccessible. Do not live with the defaults Power BI provides. They’re horrible. If your viewers need to view reports on their phone, BUILD them something that will work on their phone.

– Design a version of your report specifically for mobile, bringing in only the key essentials your dashboard users need while they are on the go. You need to TALK to your viewers and find out what they need.

– On mobile, your dashboard is in a different format. Design for that new format. It’s now impossible for a viewer to look more than 2 charts at once. Tell your data stories one chart at a time.

– Accessibility is always important, but even MORE important on mobile. Design for people with vision challenges and/or technology / wifi access issues.

Do these things, and even within the horrible mobile infrastructure surrounding Power BI reports, your report users will like what you do.

Why I used to hate Power BI and how that has made me a better teacher.

(NOTE: This post was originally written in November 2022)

Hey there,

I’m in New Orleans this week at the American Evaluation Society conference. I’m mainly here to teach a Power BI Crash Course workshop to Evaluation professionals who have never used it before. I named it “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, because I strive to make (and teach) dashboards that are fantastic and easy for users, and also because it’s an awesome name.

I forgot to take a photo of the crowd of 53 people in my workshop (It went very well and I forgot to take a photo – I think everyone had a great time and learned a lot), but here’s a photo I took yesterday when I was snooping around to check out my workshop room.

(they actually moved us to a new room twice the size of this one to fit us all. We would have been on top of one another in this small room shown below.)

No description available.

All 53 people in this workshop were brand new to Power BI. They were all trying something new.

I LOVE people who are up to trying something new. LOVE them.

And, I’m here for them. Every Single One of them. I am here to make every single one of them not only love what Power BI can do, but give them the knowledge and techniques to make useful and easy dashboards using it.

I used to work in an Evaluation and Research department. Evaluators are awesome. They are the professionals that measure when and if programs, projects, and actions have merit, value, and significance. Basically, they answer the question of “Is this thing worth doing?”

So, they are not technology experts… they may have some data skills, but it’s not the main purpose of their job… they are brand new to Power BI and it has to be easy for them to GET how to use it.

That brings me to the main point of this post:

I used to HATE Power BI

… and that hate has MADE me a BETTER teacher.

When I started using Power BI, I was busy with a thousand different things (as we all are at all stages of our lives) in addition to learning Power BI.

I didn’t have the time or the energy to devote 100% of myself to learning the nitty-gritty technical details and data geekiness that Power BI “experts” know. I needed to make charts and dashboards, and fast.

Learn how to make Power BI People-Friendly. In your email. Once a month. Easy-peasy.

I couldn’t make it work. I’d throw data into Power BI and try to visualize it and I’d get mysterious jargony error messages that had no relation to the english language. If my data was formatted incorrectly did I get an error message that said that? NO. If I put a continuous data variable in a place that should have a categorical one, was there any error message at all? NO.

Things just didn’t work and there was no explanation. I hated it.

Additionally, every online resource by Microsoft (and others), and every how-to YouTube video on Power BI was basically equally inaccessible. Every one of them assumed that their viewers had used Power BI at least a bit and understood the basic nuts and bolts. I hated those too.

I eventually muddled through, and now not only make dashboards that are loved by users, but have started hacking functionality in Power BI that no one else has figured out yet.

BUT, I have not forgotten how much I hated Power BI when I started using it.

It wasn’t totally Power BI’s fault… it was the fault of the documentation and the Power BI lessons out there. They were not accessible. They were not easy. They were not user-friendly.

Power BI doesn’t have to be hard or scary or frustrating or &#!%$*!! It CAN be EASY…

My responsibility as a teacher of people new to Power BI is to make it easy.

Very few people have the time and energy to devote 100% of themselves to learning a new piece of software, and more importantly, they should NOT have to.

When I teach, I teach for my audience. If you’re brand new to Power BI, I make it make sense for you. If you already have some experience with it, I teach you some more advanced things, using what you already know as a starting point.

This is why I get amazing feedback from students when I teach. Feedback like “Joe’s expertise, patience, kindness, and attention were instrumental to my development”.

I get this feedback because I won’t let myself forget how much I hated Power BI when I started using it. That hate has made me better.

So, whether you need to learn Power BI or Excel or some other piece of software (or anything, really), look for the teachers that make it accessible. Look at their testimonials. Talk to their formal students. Make sure they haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a complete newbie.

If you’re a teacher, do what I do. Think about your students’ perspective. It’s just like thinking about your end-user if you’re creating a dashboard, or one chart, or a report, or a memo, or ANYTHING. Think about your user.

Some teachers think that teaching is about showing how smart they are. It isn’t. It’s about their students.

Remember that, and you can’t go wrong.

Need to know more about how I teach Power BI? How I totally customize Power BI training for every group I teach? Why I get so many glowing testimonials?

Get in touch with me. I love to teach people new things.

You can reply to this email (or comment below if you’re not reading this in your email.)

Email me at joe@traversdata.com

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Connect with me on LinkedIn @traversdata