Power BI – What is it, why do we love it?

Power BI – What is it, why do we love it?

The rise of innovative, interactive, data-driven reporting tools has made creating show-stopping dashboards possible for business users and non-developers.  Nowadays, there is little need for a department of IT technicians, plus a qualified graphic designer, to create a dazzling data dashboard.

Power BI is considered one of the best reporting tools on the market to build interactive dashboards and visualisations.  It enables business users to use basic modelling techniques to build intuitive and self-service visual dashboards.  It can be completely customised for the end-user and integrates with over 70+ different data sources.  Microsoft has successfully focused on opening the system to various types of data and cloud platforms.  It also works very well across desktop, tablet and mobile environments. 

What services comprise PowerBI?

For those new to PowerBI, it comprises several tools and applications which include:

  • PowerBI Desktop application – for data ingestion, modelling and dashboard building,
  • PowerBI Service – where users can distribute dashboards and customise visuals
  • PowerBI report Builder – for building paginated reports
  • On-premise data gateway – to keep the dashboards and reports up to date by connecting to the on-premises data sources
  • PowerBI report server – to deploy and distribute interactive Power BI report and traditional paginated reports within the boundaries of organization’s firewall
  • PowerBI Mobile application to access data anywhere, anytime,  this provides live, interactive, mobile access to the important business information.

Designing a dashboard – Where Do We Start?

Before designing and building a report, it is imperative that any business or technical user thoroughly investigate and understand the business problem.  This involves analysing available information, contemplating ways in which additional information might support new insights, and determining a skeleton design for initial review.  This must all be supported by making data available to help model new approaches to problem-solving.  Understanding Key Performance Indicators is often a good place to start.

Key Design Principles – What are They?

Once we have defined the business problem and designed a skeleton dashboard, we need to build our dashboard.  There are several crucial design principles that every user should consider. First, the dashboard should be able to answer the most frequently asked business questions at a glance, which requires an understanding of the problem and the audience. 

Applying the “Five Second” Rule ensures the dashboard provides the relevant information and insight to the user in less than five seconds. 

It is also important to ensure that we use a fixed canvas size, and divide this canvas up into multiple segments, by placing the most important indicators and noteworthy information on the top segment.  We should then showcase important details such as trend analysis and performance comparisons in the middle segment, and finish with general or background information in the bottom segment.

Another principle is around “Minimalism – Less Is more”, whereby each dashboard should not contain more than 5 to 9 visuals.  Cognitive Psychology tells us that the human brain can only comprehend around seven images at any one time therefore this helps guide us as to the number of items that need to be seen on the Dashboard.  

Also, the selection of data visuals is critical to making slicing and dicing of information intuitive; line charts are often used for showcasing data patterns and bar charts help compare data in the same category.

Visualisation – Any tips and tricks?

A key presentation skill required for building visuals is following a Z-format layout so that users can readily interpret the dashboard story.  It is important to ensure that visuals are horizontally and vertically aligned so that they can be accurately compared (and don’t create any misleading optical illusions).  We also need to consider cosmetics for readability – shorten large numbers, use standard colours throughout the dashboard to represent specific information (e.g., Sales, Products, Locations) and use titles, axis labels and legends where appropriate. 

Engagement – What is key?

A critical principle every dashboard needs to achieve is keeping the users engaged.  To achieve this goal, it’s important to model the data in the right way, so that PowerBI’s powerful filtering features can allow users to analyse data, and customise the dashboard according to their information requirements.  PowerBI has many features that enable designers to keep users engaged, simplifying navigation, adding bookmarks and buttons, providing options to slice customised information, and pinning key visuals to user-created dashboards.

Once you are confident you have met these design principles, you are off and running on building and testing your dashboard.  It can be an exhilarating feeling when your dashboards are finally published to your end-users, and new insights are established.

Where can I find more information?

There are many information sources that will enable users to learn how to use PowerBI to build beautifully designed dashboards.  

  • PowerBI documentation – a reference library from Microsoft for PowerBI https://docs.microsoft.com/en-gb/power-bi/
  • Microsoft learn – an environment that provides step-by-step education supporting lab exercises to prepare for Microsoft Certifications https://docs.microsoft.com/en-gb/learn/
  • Community.powerbi.com – an open community of users who share information, provide specific question and answer forums, access to updates and general information https://community.powerbi.com/
  • DAX.Guide which provides information on PowerBI’s powerful programming language (Data Analysis eXpression) https://dax.guide/
  • Udemy, Coursera, EDX and LinkedIn Learning are also great places to study and prepare for Microsoft Certifications. 

Don’t forget to follow InfoCentric on LinkedIn, and don’t miss Part II – PowerBI Security from our five-part series on PowerBI.