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Post by Rob Collie

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The Models We Build in Power Pivot are the Prime Movers.  Visualization is “Just” Where the Information (Output of the Model) Meets the Humans.

A Comment Plucked Straight from My Brain!

Avi’s post last week was deliberately thought-provoking (and to some, perhaps outright provoking, heh heh).  It drew a lot of views, shares, tweets, and comments.

My favorite comment, by far, was this one by Andrew.  Here’s a slightly condensed version of it:

“Five years from now, I envision a time when awesome visualization tools and incredible and beautiful charts are common and very cheap. Everyone will have those and they will be easy to make. What will still be rare is what Power Pivot does and the role that it plays along with Power Query. The real action is in prepping data and turning it into information that can be visualized… not the actual visualizations. Unfortunately, so many get lost amid a sea of pretty bars on maps and dynamic spider webs…

It’s the model stupid! It’s the ease of crunching numbers and aggregating millions of rows on the fly! It’s the simplicity of turning trash data into sparkling clean information and not having to go through red tape clogged and extremely expensive departments to do it – do it yourself!…

Hear hear, Andrew!  Salute!  We park our cars in the same garage, as the movie producer said to Christian Slater in True Romance.  As I’ve said before, even the phrase “let’s look at the data” sets us up for failure.

Visualization:  NOT Unimportant.  Just Easier to Replace!

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Just Like Light Bulbs:  Crucial, But MUCH Easier to Replace than the Wiring.

In short, my observations today come down to these three things:

  1. RVOE:  Replacement Value Over Excel.  Excel is essentially free, and is incredibly under-rated as a viz tool.  If you measure any Viz tool’s true value through this lens, it’s much harder to justify the price of most of them.
  2. It’s Relatively Easy for Software Firms to Build a Viz Tool.  Compared to modeling and calc engines like Power Pivot, at least.  And Power Pivot is the best such engine on the market.  So, I think it’s sensible to start with Power Pivot as your core “commitment,” and then pick your viz layer – there are many available, and many more to come as time goes on.
  3. Don’t buy a “full stack” Analytics Tool Just Because of its Viz capabilities.  This is kinda the corrolary to #2, but it also helps us understand why certain “Viz” tools are so stinking expensive.
  4. My parting thoughts on the ways in which Viz tools ARE important. 

1) RVOE:  “Replacement Value Over Excel” is Lower Than Expected

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RVOE is Lower Than Expected
(And What Viz Tool Was Used Here?  Why, PowerPoint of Course.)

Anyone who’s spent much time with me knows that I am constantly complaining about “Last Mile Failures” and especially “User Interface Failures.” You can build the most amazing technology (or workbook!) the world has ever seen, but if you fail to adequately “blend it” with those pesky humans, well, all your hard work is for naught.

So I am NOT saying “don’t worry about the Last Mile.”  Far from it.  In fact, even a tremendous percentage of the posts on this website are categorized as Creative Visualizations – including my post last week!  The entire topic of Disconnected Slicers is essentially a form of human factor / last mile artistry.  And check out the whole notion of Nouns and Verbs.

But you might notice a theme in those posts:  Good Old Excel is the canvas for ALL of them!  You can “get ‘er done” with Excel, even in the Viz space, over and over and over again.  And oftentimes,  you can ONLY do it with Excel, as no other tool offers a Network Effect.

So think of it this way:  Excel is your ever-present Visualization Baseline.  Tools like Power View, Tableau, and Qlik – in their capacities as Visualization tools – should not be measured against some mythical Zero Level, but against the “free replacement value” of Excel.

Which makes them all a bit less valuable, doesn’t it? Smile  Not without value…  just… less valuable.  In sports analytics, they call this the Value Over Replacement.  I propose that in the world of analytics, we coin the phrase RVOE:  Replacement Value Over Excel.

2) Viz Software is Easier to Build than Modeling Engines

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Another factor here is that Visualization software is easier to develop than Calculation and Modeling Software (the latter of which is what Power Pivot is).

For instance, Power View appeared on the scene almost instantaneously.  Power Pivot’s engineering history is much, much longer – tracing back nearly 20 years now (through Analysis Services and even Panorama).

This is no coincidence.  The barriers to entry are much lower for the Visualization market than the modeling and calculation market.  People like Grant over at Angry Koala develop their own visualization layers practically in their spare time, but you won’t find most consulting firms building their own modeling/calc engines – not even Crazy Aussie Grant.  You need to have many years at your disposal to build a modeling/calc layer.

3) If it’s a Viz Layer, Why is Tableau so Expensive, Then?

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Tableau is most often sold as a pure Visualization tool, but it’s more than that under the hood.  It has its own calculation engine, and to a lesser extent, its own modeling engine.  It’s a full-spectrum competitor, technology-wise to the entire Power BI stack.

The Tableau sales force has found that if they “lead,’’ heavily, with the visualization story, they get customers to sign up.  But they have to price the product MUCH higher than that, to offset all the engine development under the hood (which, I suspect, comprise the vast majority of their overall development cost, and the “viz” layer is cheap by comparison).

This is also why you aren’t going to find Tableau and Microsoft cooperating, probably ever.  Tableau is too deeply invested to position themselves as just a viz layer.  And MS is not going to cooperate with a competitor who is attempting to replace the engine AND the visualization components offered by MS. 

If you have already paid for Tableau, it may make a lot of sense for you to opportunistically utilize it as a front end for Power Pivot models.  But you shouldn’t BUY something like Tableau with the intent of using it for that purpose, because you will be paying for a lot more than you need.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1a/Misterjaw_1976.jpg?resize=300%2C221

Power Pivot / SSAS Tabular Modeling Engine (Top) and All Others (Bottom)
(Yes, it’s a Misterjaw Reference!  E-gotcha!)

And besides, Power Pivot / SSAS Tabular is the best modeling layer in the world.  By far.  It’s the apex predator of calc and modeling tools, as illustrated in the picture above.  It has no equal.  And it’s incredibly affordable.

4) So Where, When, and Why are Visualization Tools Worth Buying?

Here are the top three reasons, in my experience, why a Viz-Specialized tool is worth buying or using:

  1. For actual communication of concepts that Excel can’t handle.  Sometimes, you just can’t do it with Excel viz.  When you need Mapping for instance, or an animation over time, or a “Card View.”  In practice these needs are not the most common, but they do enter all of our work lives periodically.
  2. For display on mobile devices.  Yes, the MS stack isn’t quite “there” yet.  The experience of using a Viz tool on an iPad, for instance, and having it Just Work Flawlessly?  It’s priceless.  And while Excel Services (in SharePoint) can render to Safari running on an iPad, it’s not exactly a native iOS app yet.
  3. For Buy-In. One of our close friends recently said “I use Power View to sell a project to upper management, but then once the project is approved, I do all of the visualization work in regular Excel and no one notices because the quality of the information coming out of Power Pivot is so incredibly high.”  Bingo bingo bingo!  We have a winner.  For more on this, take a quick tour through Eye Candy IS a Critical Business Requirement.

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. Rob, I agree 100%. I can copy and paste your description replacing Excel with Analysis Services (either Multidimensional or Tabular). The data models you can create with these tools (that have been built by the same team and share a lot of code) are really good and I still haven’t seen anything comparable in terms of platform. The point is that the data visualization in MS has been so weak that not only Tableau, but many other vendors simply used that leak as a leverage point to introduce a different platform. Only tools such as XLCubed and Pyramid Analytics are really a complement and not a replacement to MS stack.
    (well I used the past, I know that…)

    1. Great post Rob, and good point Marco – “…data visualization in MS has been so weak that not only Tableau, but many other vendors simply used that leak as a leverage point to introduce a different platform”.
      An earlier Rob post outlines the exact same argument What is Power Pivot’s #1 Competitor? Spoiler Alert: No, it’s not Tableau, it’s Excel itself.

      While Excel Visualization is ultimately flexible, it’s still not easy or cheap.It has the same dynamic as native Excel has as far as modelling goes. See Graph. It gets complicated/expensive over time, as you keep adding things. But I agree, it is the standard that others should be compared against, RVOE indeed!

  2. Rob, Enjoy the post, good early morning reading. My comments are, way too much just sizzle for my liking, not to mention the wasted money. I enjoy my meat and potatoes with a desert, but that’s why I didn’t own of those fancy overpriced Visual tools, Thanks MS.

  3. Rob, your final comment really stuck out to me. We have seen repeatedly that Power View sells upper management. The apparent ease of which the data can be displayed and moved around seems amazing to them. But you are so right. This really is “the last mile.” All of the work that went into modeling the data, the calculations, etc. is the hard part and is the most valuable part. What a telling visualization of the “Replacement Value Over Excel” (RVOE). I am going to start using that phrase. Good stuff once again Rob!

  4. Food for thought, true. However, I might just be a rebel and disagree… wait, not food for thought, food for post… 😉

  5. Totally agree, I spent a fair amount of time last year learning the basics of Tableau just because I was so impressed with its visualization capabilities (a large number of which revolve around aligning default settings with best practices, which MS is getting much better at.) However after I felt like I could call myself proficient I was faced with how much of its modeling system I wanted to invest time in learning; almost immediately I headed straight back to DAXlandia.

    Visualization is indeed a critical step (not about pretty colors, its about maximizing information throughput); but if developers are willing to spend the time to learn basic best practices and don’t mind a few extra mouse clicks, Excel/PowerPivot/PowerView can do some incredible stuff.

    While I do think that as of today, Tableau has a few significant advantages over PowerPivot in terms of presentation, but I think these will be short lived, and the modeling system is so so *so* much better, and ultimately more important in the long run, I just feel silly spending time developing skills in anything else.

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