I’ve used a lot of tools in the 15+ years I’ve been in data. My favourite, by a mile, is still “old faithful” (Excel) and I wont apologise for it. But I’ve dipped my toe into other “data lakes” (get it?!) with Tableau and QlikView being some of personal favourites.

Though I’m an Excel disciple, its strange that until recently I haven’t used Power BI in the “real world” much. I’ve trained myself on it, but until this week I didn’t need to use it for a real business purpose.

Running this start-up has me so busy. So busy in fact I’ve only just got around to building a “Business Overview” Dashboard. The irony isn’t lost on me, given that my start-ups product, Brijj, helps speed up Data projects!

There are lots of metrics that matter to a start-up and SaaS in general. But I needed to build a dashboard with some key metrics for myself and my co-founder. In a nutshell we needed the following:

  • Visitors to our Website
  • What proportion of those visitors become “engaged”
  • How many of those customers are likely to become paying customers
  • How many customers will we lose through churn
  • If we turn up or down a marketing spend, how will that affect visitors
  • What all this means to our projected financials etc

Normally, I’d fire up Tableau as its my go to for building interactive dashboards. But this time I thought hey, why not fall into the loving arms of Bill Gates & Satya Nadella once more? Lets give Power BI a go?

So In the space of about four hours I whipped up a dashboard profiling everything I needed!

Which…I unfortunately cant show you because I’m obviously pretty into data protection. So instead here’s a picture of Techs greatest dynamic duo:

Insights-Decisions-Actions

I have to say…Power BI is Microsoft products in a nutshell. Both a triumph and a frustrating mess which makes me never want to touch a row of data ever again.

 

What I love

Modelling in Power BI is so easy! Getting all my data sources together was quick and easy. I needed to join data from Google Analytics & Mouseflow for our website.

We’ve been running some Advertisement experiments. So, I needed data from the Ad platforms of ‘Google’, ‘LinkedIn’, ‘Facebook’ & ‘Reddit’. I needed data from ‘Mail Chimp’, ‘PipeDrive’, ‘Help Scout’ and ‘Optin Monster’ to get a picture of engagement. And finally I also needed to port financial data from ‘Xero’ and ‘Revolut’.

I did some of this through direct integrations in Power BI, for example in the case of Google Analytics.

For those with no direct integrations, I used a combination of SmartSheet and Zapier. And then linked to Power BI through Smartsheet! Easy.

Once it was in, then Power BI comes into its own. Power Query is top level for data preparation and transformation. It’s at least comparable with Tableau Prep, if not better. You can transform your data in quick and easy steps building out a logical flow which you can amend on the fly. This gives you a structure of queries and tables which can relate to each other. Its great.

I also love the visualisation and dashboard aspect of Power BI. Its not as intuitive as Tableau or Qlik Sense, but it does a great job at creating tidy, clear dashboards. It also has a couple of details which exceed Tableau from an aesthetic perspective. For example, the way that visualisations animate when drilling down into data. Its a small detail sure, but I liked it.

The choice of visualisations are also great. The debate around Pie Charts and Gauges will go on forever. Whatever your opinion though, Power BI gives you 99% of the visualisations you’ll need. Tableau used to get very touchy about the “right” thing to do with visualisations. It amazes me that Tableau “refuses” to install certain types of viz their customers. Give the people what they want Selipsky!

 

What I hate

To be clear, Power BI is great. But the issues I have with it are actually reflective of the issues I have with Microsoft in general. I know they are huge, with hundreds of products and varying development pipelines. But why is nothing ever easy?

I didn’t come across much I couldn’t do in Power BI. I just don’t know why Microsoft makes things so hard sometimes! Take Parameters for example. In Tableau, you can create a parameter which is a dynamic value you can assign to formulas, filters and visualisations. Its the go-to tool for what-if scenarios.

When you try to find out how to use parameters Tableau’s knowledge base outlines it in an easy way. They care about User Experience and put in the time to make things simple. Microsoft? Not so much.

To show what I mean, imagine I was a complete novice and I asked Google this phrase: “I want to change a value dynamically…”.

If I add the words “to Tableau” to the end of that the first link that comes up is:

https://www.tableau.com/about/blog/2020/2/say-hello-dynamic-parameters

Great, now I know that ‘Parameters’ are what I’m looking for and I can find out more. Now if I add “to Power BI” the top result is this:

https://community.powerbi.com/t5/DAX-Commands-and-Tips/Replace-the-values-Dynamically/m-p/882787

Don’t bother reading it, but the gist of it is that it wouldn’t help. The first article authored by Microsoft themselves is nine links down!

Now, I know that Google Search Rankings aren’t Microsoft’s fault. But this small frustration is an example of something Microsoft fail at.

Microsoft don’t appear passionate enough about UX. Things are always a little bit annoying. There are lots of examples in Power BI. Why cant I easily build parameters? Why cant I easily change the width of a bar? Why cant I change a line graph to a curved line? And if I cant do something, why is it always hard work to find out how!?

I’m aware that these are small concerns. But the reality is that people want to use products that are as free from frustration as possible. I’m afraid that Power BI has inherited some of that Microsoft “clunky” culture.

 

Summary

Having gotten my general annoyance of Microsoft products off my chest, I have to say that Power BI is a top product. Its modelling and dashboarding is excellent. Although for adhoc analysis it trails Tableau. Its a little clunky and has fundamental functionality missing,  which can be annoying. Having said that, In my view, its going to dominate the BI tool market for years to come. I’d bet it will become a fundamental business tool like ‘old faithful’ and the office suite in general.

 

Power BI is great for;

  • Quick and powerful data transformation and modelling
  • Functional Dashboards
  • Natural Move forward for Excel Nuts
  • One of the more “affordable” solutions

Power BI is not as good as others for:

  • Adhoc Visual Analysis, Tableau is better
  • “Non Technical” Users, again Tableau is better
  • Creating “Beautiful” Visualisations, you guessed it…Tableau is better