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InfiniteJoy

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Reply with quote  #1 
I have found that you can reduce "glitz" in Xcelsius by going to View --> Change Skin and selecting something other than Aqua or Graphite.  The simplest skins are Halo or Windows Classic.

Since this is a common (and justified!) complaint here on Stephen's site, I thought I would introduce this tip to the conversation.
sfew

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Reply with quote  #2 
I have worked with several clients who use Xcelsius, including software vendors that use it as the dashboard portion of their products. In every case, many of the changes that were needed to improve the effectiveness of the display could not be made. For instance, many of the gauges, etc., have lighting effects or color gradients that cannot be removed by changing the skin. You will find discussions here in the discussion board and in my blog that include back and forth conversations with people who use Xcelsius who ended up hitting the wall and changing their opinion about the efficacy of the product.
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Stephen Few
InfiniteJoy

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Reply with quote  #3 
Interesting, I have never had a problem getting rid of the glitz in Xcelsius.

I suppose simple pictures would have made my point. 

What do you think here?  If you agree, I hope you'll set the record straight for other readers. 


With glitz:


Exact same components without glitz (used "Halo" skin):


For the record, I hate gauges and pie charts too.


After evaluating many alternatives, my company is rolling out Xcelsius as the main dashboarding tool for 25,000+ employees.  As project manager, I am making your "Information Dashboard Design" and "Show Me the Numbers" required reading/training material in order to be a dashboard builder.

We are finding it entirely possible to follow your design principles very closely with this toolset.  And with the ability to develop our own components with the upcoming Xcelsius v5, I suspect it won't be long before sparklines and bullet graphs are part of my arsenal.  (We will build them ourselves if no one else does!...Any takers?)

To be totally honest, the scales tipped for me to Xcelsius because it comes bundled with this excellent data mapping tool that we purchased recently (http://www.incuity.com) that allows us to have one hierarchy to get to literally any data in the whole company.  It is so easy to quickly get at any of our corporate data and get it into Excel/Xcelsius.

But I am finding it very easy to follow your principles with Xcelsius.  You just have to know how to use it.


sfew

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Reply with quote  #4 
InifiteJoy (or may I call you Chris?),

Thanks for taking the time to demonstrate what can now be done to clean up Xcelsius' charts and other display widgets. Before commenting specifically on these items, I have a question about skins. Was the Halo skin that you used to simplify the appearance of these widgets (1) provided by Xcelsius, (2) something you developed using either Xcelsius or Flash, or (3) something that was already available in Flash?

Regarding the sample Xcelsius display widgets, more is required to make them fully effective on a dashboard than the removal of some of the most egregious visual effects.
  • In the bar graph, can the grid lines be removed entirely? They are usually not needed, especially on a dashboard where the extra level of quantitative precision that they provide isn't desired. Also, can the border around the chart be removed?
  • Circular gauges, such as the one in the top right corner, are a waste of valuable space, so I avoid them altogether. Nevertheless, because Xcelsius does not provide a bullet graph or a similar linear guage, I'll critique what's available for now. First, can you include a quantitative scale around the guage? Tick marks without a scale are useless. Second, can you include a point of comparison, such as a target, in addition to the measure that encoded by the gauge's pointer? Measures without points of comparison are not very helpful for performance monitoring. Third, can the drop shadow be removed? Fourth, can the pointer be made more salient, such as by making it black?
  • Regarding the vertical meter on the right and the horizontal meter in the middle on the left, just as with the circular gauge, can you label values along the axis, can you include a point of comparison, and can you visually encode qualitative ranges in the background (e.g., poor, satisfactory, and good)?
  • Regarding the remaining widgets, can the gradient shading be removed?
In addition to the fact that the bullet graph or an equally effective linear gauge is not supported by Xcelsius, I understand that sparklines--another exceptionally useful display mechanism for dashboards--are also not supported. Am I correct about this?

It would be helpful to see examples of line charts as well, if you have the time to provide them.

Thanks for submitting Xcelsius to the test. Whether it is a good dashboarding tool or not, it is the tool that you have, so your effort to make the most of it is clearly worthwhile.

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Stephen Few
Mindjon

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Reply with quote  #5 

 

 InfiniteJoy,

 

As a fellow Xcelsius user AND fan of Stephen Few’s works, I’ll give you a hand here.

 

Stephen,

 

The Halo and Windows Classic skins (along with a worthless Graphite skin) were introduced in Xcelsius 4.5 in June 2006.

 

By default, everything in Xcelsius is big and bubbly, so even after changing the skin to either Halo or Windows Classic (depending on the objects I’m planning on using; some look better in Halo, others in Windows Classic), and pulling in the objects I need, I make things smaller.  This usually means shrinking the size of selector objects and reducing the font size of chart titles, axis labels, etc. that by default are too big.

 

Bar Charts

  • Gridlines and borders can easily be removed from bar charts.  

Gauges

I never use the gauges, but to answer your questions on these:

 

  • There is an option to “Show Limits” but no option to show any other values along the edge of the gauge. 
  • You can’t add a target, per se, but you can define alert levels (displayed as green, yellow and red, but these can be changed to any color).
  • Drop down shadow can’t be removed. 
  • The pointer color can be changed to black, or any other color for gauges that don’t have alerts enabled, otherwise, it will inherit the color of the alert range the pointer is on. 

Vertical and horizontal meters

  • As with the gauges, you can show limits, but not any additional values along the side, but a target can easily be added with a text label and a line. 
  • You can define alert ranges here too, which will change the color of the “bar” according to the ranges and colors that you define.  
  • You can’t display qualitative ranges in the background; however, you can enable the alert level display, which will encode them (interestingly), below the horizontal meter or to the right of the vertical meter vs. in the background.  Almost works, but obviously, having them in the background would be better (and make it a bullet graph).   

Unfortunately, the gradients can’t be removed from the vertical and horizontal meters or the icon (green alert), but I usually just make my own alert icons using the ellipse object that Xcelsius provides.

 

Sparklines and bullet graphs are currently not supported, but as IfiniteJoy mentioned, this could change with the next release of Xcelsius.  Version 5.0 will allow for objects created in Adobe Flex to be used as Xcelsius objects.  Whether or not this means that Flex-created bullet graphs and sparklines will be able to be used within Xcelsius remains to be seen.

 

Line chart example provided.

 

John

 

 

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sfew

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Reply with quote  #6 
Mindjon,

Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I'm curious--can a particular skin, such as Halo, be established as the default skin so that widgets assume that appearance automatically?

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Stephen Few
Mindjon

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Reply with quote  #7 
Stephen,

"Aqua" is the default skin, but changing this is easy through a drop-down menu selection.  Skins are set for the entire file (as opposed to being set per object), so what you'd normally do is set the skin first, then start pulling objects onto the main "canvas" from a floating components panel.  The objects would all have the look of that skin.  Since I have additional changes that I make every time (font sizes, removing borders and gridlines), I create files with the skin and additional changes I want, then save these as templates.

John
InfiniteJoy

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Reply with quote  #8 

I'll back up everything I say here with screenshots...

The skins were introduced in version 4.0 when Xcelsius was still owned by Infommersion.



Then, when BusinessObjects bought it and repackaged as version 4.5 under their name, they kept this functionality.

To answer your other questions, I have to disagree with other portions of what John said (although I'm glad for the discussion here!).

1.  In the bar chart the gridlines can be removed and the border can be removed - both via simple checkboxes.  I can also get creative with my shading and target lines.

2. On the gauge you can include a quantitative scale and you can include more than just the end points (e.g. the limit values or otherwise) with a simple trick.  On the same note, you can indicate a static target value with a little creativity.  You cannot remove the drop shadow (a minor flaw here).  You can change the color of the pointer.

3. On the meter bars you can include a quantitative scale and you can include more than just the end points with that trick.  You can indicate a static target value using simple lines.  If you really, really needed the target to be dynamic for meters, it is not that hard to lay a small, transparent XY plot with an identical axis over the meter bar with a small diamond as the marker.  You cannot have dynamic background shading for alert ranges (only along the edge.  But, if they are static alert ranges, you can just draw a rectangle and shade it.  So, I can get fairly close to a bullet graph today, and create my own for v5 and sell it to everyone you've inspired here.

4. The gradient shading can be avoided for the circle if you use the circle tool (which does still support dynamic visibility).  The gradient shading on the meter bars can be minimized with color selection (or just use the bar chart in the first place, even if you only have one bar).

5.  Sparklines can definitely be created, but I would like them to be just a bit smaller (which happens if I include a title).  My screenshot shows the minimum size in v4.5 when there is no title.

You can also create a red box with dynamic visibility per p.199 in IDD to highlight items of note in a table.





If you want to set your default skin to Halo, you can just pick it from the list before building your dashboard.  If you want to remove the others altogether (before rolling out to an entire corporation), it is possible to mess with the Skins directory under Xcelsius in Program Files.

In v5 you can definitely set the default skin for all time:



I don't know if anyone else here is part of the Beta community, but I am more than happy to be one more voice echoing the wisdom to them.
sfew

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Reply with quote  #9 
InfiniteJoy,

Most of the credit for the improvements that you demonstrated in your last post goes to you rather than Xcelsius. As you mentioned, you're using tricks and workarounds. I'm sure that I could design a perfect dashboard using Flash directly, but that wouldn't make Flash a dashboard product; it would make me a good programmer. Products don't get credit for workarounds, even though vendors sometimes like to refer to them as features. Xcelsius does deserve credit for the improvements that you demonstrated by using skins, but the rest goes to you.

Even though Xcelsius doesn't get credit for your workaround, they are obviously useful to you, so I'll make some suggestions. The sparklines that you've demonstrated don't pass muster. You must be able to display many more values in less space. Xcelsius will need to provide a dedicated sparkline widget to accomplish what's needed. Regarding the quantitative scale on the gauges, can the numbers be positioned around the outside of the circle? Placing them on the inside would cause the pointer at times to occlude the number. Also, are they attached to the gauge, or are you simply placing text as an independent object where you need it? Can the target line on the bar graph be sized to extend precisely to the top of the plot area, rather than ending below it as it does now?

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Stephen Few
bpierce

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Reply with quote  #10 
Jorge Camoes recently posted a six-part series on his blog that readers might find interesting. He attempted to use Xcelsius to recreate a dashboard that he had previously made in Excel. In the end, he gave up, deciding that Xcelsius has too many problems to allow an adequate reproduction. In his conclusion he wrote, "Xcelsius is a lovely toy piano, but please don't bring [it] to my concert hall..."

You can find his full six-part review here: http://charts.jorgecamoes.com/demographic-dashboard-the-crystal-xcelsius-edition/

-Bryan
Mindjon

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Reply with quote  #11 

InfiniteJoy,

 

4.0 had skins, but if you look in the user’s guide, you’ll see that these 3 particular skins were added in 4.5.

 

You’re right, much like how I added a target on the vertical meter, you can also manually add labels for ticks and rectangles as target ranges.  As you pointed out, these work well for static values/scales but I avoid this like the plague for anything that is dynamic since it’s extremely easy for things to get out of sync.  Hopefully the new version will allow for the creation of charts with these features built in.

 

As far as the sparklines go, I think everyone with a copy of Xcelsius and knowledge of what sparklines are have tried this (taking a line graph and removing everything but the line itself, then shrinking the graph as far as it will go) but the fact that there’s a limit on how small you can make it, makes it pretty tough to use as a sparkline.  By definition, a sparkline has to be small.

 

Other than that, I think we had similar comments, just worded differently.

 

John

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InfiniteJoy

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Reply with quote  #12 
I agree it shouldn't require workarounds, but I'll make the most of the only thing I've got available to me now (especially when it's still pretty easy).  It's better than using the same tool mindlessly.

The line chart can definitely handle more values and I just realized I can make it even smaller by changing my y-axis values (another workaround).

The default position for the gauge scale labels is indeed outside the gauge.  I put them inside because that's how just about every gauge I've ever seen looks.  You are right that it block the view.

The starting and ending scale labels are attached to the bars and gauges.  I added the others with no trouble.

And I can definitely fix that line on the bar graph.


camoesjo

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Reply with quote  #13 
InfiniteJoy
I think you could find my little experiment interesting. I designed a basic dashboard in Excel (you can get it here) to show how an average user can use Excel to create her own dashboards. Then I downloaded Xcelsius and tried to create a similar dashboard. I documented my findings in a series of posts (see the Xcelsius Dashboard series).

What can I say? The experiment was a disaster. By using a "real-world" example as a benchmark I could feel the severe limitations the product suffers from. Stephen Few wrote strong words about it, and I generally agree with them, but they are a little off target. It is not about the glitz, that's easily reduced with the right skin. It is about how Xcelsius handles the data, Excel unsupported functions, lack of basic options, stupid mistakes...

I concluded the Xcelsius is a toy piano. The kids may love it, but will you take it to the office?

(Oops... thanks Bryan, you are faster than I am... and thanks for the [it] (corrected).
InfiniteJoy

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Posts: 18
Reply with quote  #14 
I'm still new here, but I think I am starting to get what everyone is desiring to see (a la p.199 in Stephen's outstanding book):




And just because I know there are conspiracy theorists in the world, here's the proof I actually did this in Xcelsius just now.



Chris Damsgard

InfiniteJoy

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Posts: 18
Reply with quote  #15 
John,

Thanks for the correction on Halo as a specific skin in v4.5. 

Jorge,

I really liked your review.  You point out some very important watchouts for those considering Xcelsius.

I would just counter that if one is stuck with Xcelsius as the only option (as I am now), you can really get quite far with a few simple workarounds.

And I am certain that Xcelsius is going to get much better very soon given the fact we can make our own components for version 5 to solve the remaining issues (bullet graphs, tables without lines, that call duration thingy on p. 199, etc).
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