November 3, 2008, 3:48 pm
Microsoft Chart Advisor — Consider the Source
By Mac McBurney
The prototype Chart Advisor for Excel 2007 from Office Labs sounds like a step in the right direction:
This add-in uses an advanced rules engine to scan your data and, based on predefined rules, displays charts according to score. Top scoring charts are available for you to preview, tweak, and insert into your Excel worksheet.
An early post by Program Manager Scott Ruble describes the Excel team’s motivations, which at first glance seem admirable. On second thought, Ruble’s understated description of the group’s noble “intent” and responsiveness to strong feedback reminded me not to get my hopes up. (Emphasis and sarcastic comments added by me):
When Office 2007 was released [and not before then?], one of the strong pieces of feedback was Excel needs to do a better job guiding users in the proper selection of charts to effectively communicate their data. Though it wasn’t our intent [I feel so much better now], some of the new [and the old] formatting options [and defaults] such as glow and legacy 3D charts can [only] be used inappropriately, which obscure[sic] the meaning of a chart. Some people [silly, silly people] felt that these features contributed to creating more “chart junk.” In an effort to improve this situation, we have created a prototype called the Chart Advisor.
Mr. Ruble is being too modest. The new features and default settings — like the old features and default settings — guarantee more chart junk. This team wasn’t born on the day Office 2007 was released — quite the opposite. Saying that inappropriate use and obscuring the meaning of a chart was not the team’s intent seems, frankly, laughable.
I expect an upgrade from Microsoft to include new features — new things that users could do. Giving good advice about what a user should do is more difficult and risky, and it would ultimately be much more valuable. This is ambitious, and let’s hope it signals a greater focus on improving the real-world capabilities of Excel users, not just increasing the capabilities of the Excel software.
So far, Chart Advisor is in no danger of becoming an artificial Edward Tufte inside Excel. The add-in still serves a side order of chartjunk with your data.
Hey, that “advanced rules engine” is just a prototype. (More on the rules engine). If the wizards at Microsoft succeed in upgrading Excel’s brain, here’s hoping they have the courage to give it a heart and good taste as well.
“Excel guru Jon Peltier didn’t even get that far.”
In fairness, MS Labs corrected the problems I was having a couple days after I reported the bug. I commented in my post about my first impressions in the post you’ve cited from my blog. I planned at that time to blog again after I had a chance to play with the chart advisor. I have not yet had that chance.
Posted by Jon Peltier on November 3, 2008 at 5:06 pm
You should have a look on Chart Tamer:
Microsoft Chart Advisor chart selecting process is based on an automated approach. A rule engine scans your data and calculates a score based on the rules and a so called popularity index. I have my doubts that such a full automated approach will help users selecting the appropriate chart type. Charts that are popular but not effective, like the pie chart, will get a high score.
Chart Tamer is following a different philosophy, respecting Alan Coopers rule “Imagine users as very intelligent but very busy.” Chart Tamer asks you some questions about the relationship you want to display and how you want to emphasize your data. Finally Chart Tamer offers you a selection of charts that makes sense in this context.
Posted by Andreas on June 30, 2009 at 8:36 am