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Some Words About Charting

Over the past few months, when I have posted information about charting in Office 2007, there has been plenty of feedback and discussion about the work presented.  Today, I wanted to spend a bit of time addressing some of that feedback.

When I read over the feedback, especially the feedback that resulted from the survey post last week, it seems to fall into three categories:

  1. Why did you not add (insert your most important chart feature here) in Office 2007?
  2. There is too much of an emphasis on “eye candy†in the features that you did add to Charting in Office 2007.
  3. The styles that you have shown us are not “professionalâ€.

Here are a few thoughts on each of those items that will, hopefully, at least help everyone understand how we ended up where we are.

Why did you not add (insert your most important chart feature here) in Office 2007?

We are very aware that there is customer demand for new features in charting – new chart types, better integration with Word & PowerPoint, more control over the layout of charts, more capabilities within charts, better visuals (e.g.  anti aliasing, color schemes), better PivotCharts/a more “interactive†experience, conditional formatting, support for bigger data sets, and so on.  Over time, our goal is to deliver a great many of those features while maintaining decent backwards compatibility with the hundreds of millions of charts that our customers have created over the last 20 years.  That said, the work required to deliver all those features and maintain backwards compatibility is much bigger than would ever fit in any single release of Office, so we need to sequence the work over a period of time. 

So how will sequencing work?  This release, we made a number of architectural changes so that we would have a solid foundation on which to build the next several releases of charting features.  Specifically, we significantly updated the charting engine and hooked into a cross-Office “rendering†platform (that’s fancy talk for “code that draws the shapes and text that makes up chartsâ€).  This is the work that allowed us to make charts native objects in Word and PowerPoint, just like they are in Excel.  This is also the work that gave us better looking drawing of charts (anti aliasing, better text, and the other visual effects).  Because all the other features we hope to add to charts will be built on top of this foundation, we needed to get the foundation completed before we could start adding other features.  Along the way this release, we also redesigned the UI to accommodate the new ribbon and dialog architecture, which was part of a broad cross-Office initiative.

The key point here is that we are aware there is a broad set of features customers want us to add to Office, and we hope to add them over time.  At some future point, I hope to figure out a way to solicit the opinions of the thousands of people that read this blog on which charting features we should focus on next.

There is too much of an emphasis on “eye candy†in the features that you did add to Charting in Office 2007.

This is related to the discussion above.  Charts in Office 2007 are built using a shared Office drawing layer.  We used this shared drawing layer so that charts could be native objects in any application, which is a long-standing customer request, and also because the shared drawing layer allowed us to draw very good-looking charts (meaning things like anti-aliased lines), which is another long-standing customer request.  Because the shared layer is used for more than just charts – it is also used for drawing objects, Word Art, effects in PowerPoint, etc. – the layer has plenty of modern visual capabilities which the chart engine then inherits for free, essentially.  Because these capabilities exist, we have exposed them to some extent in the chart UI.  While we understand not everyone is interested in effects like gradients and shadows, that is not universally true – for example, customers often request modern graphic effects in charts in PowerPoint. 

The key point here is that the “eye candy†available in charts is part of the platform that we built charts upon, so it is not like we had to “trade off†other charting features to implement these effects – they are simply part of the platform.  Additionally, while some of these visual effects may not be something in great demand in Excel, they are something that has appeal in other Office applications.  Finally, we have been careful to try and provide a balance between styles that apply these effects and simple, straightforward styles that do not … and in most cases, the defaults are the simple, straightforward styles.

The styles that you have shown us are not “professional†(or how you can help us make Office 2007 charts better)

Chart styles are part of a larger initiative across Office 2007.  We have many customers who spend significant time trying to create good-looking documents.  Our intent with Office 2007 is to make it easier to create good-looking documents.  This means providing a way to create charts, tables, diagrams, shapes, and other document components with a consistent look and feel.  Each document has a theme which defines a coordinated set of styles for each document component.  For charts, we have tried to create a wide breadth of styles to cover the broad variety of business needs in Excel, PowerPoint, and Word.  We have tried to optimize these styles for charts; e.g. emphasizing the data, while balancing a consistent look with the other document components such as tables and diagrams.  For example, axes, tick marks, and gridlines have been subdued to allow the data in the plot area to stand out more.

OK, so that is our intent.   We certainly heard some feedback last week (in blog comments and the survey which many of you did fill out thanks very much) that the styles you saw were not what you would consider “professionalâ€, or that there were things you would like to see changed.  (To be fair, neither the survey nor the images in this blog have presented a holistic view of all the styles available – for some reason, I think we tended to show the fancier more effects-laden styles, so our mistake.)  That is great feedback, and we would like to understand more.

To that end, I would like to invite the folks that posted comments last week as well as other blog readers to provide us some examples of what you think a “professional†chart looks like.  While this could take a number of forms, given that a picture can be worth a thousand words, one thing that would be great is to see XL files that contain sample “professional†charts – this could be either something from the current versions of Excel or from the Excel 2007 beta.  Those of you with the beta, we would also be happy to hear specific changes you would like to see to the chart styles in the beta build.  You can send all files and comments to xlfiles@microsoft.com.  We will take what we get in the next week or so and try and factor the feedback into the final set of styles. 

Thanks in advance to all that take the time to help us out.