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Today we have a guest post from Sander Viegers, a user experience designer who worked on many aspects of Excel 2007.
Hi, my name is Sander Viegers. I am user experience designer in the Office Design Group. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Excel team on Excel 2007. In this blog entry I would like to provide some insight into how I contributed as a user experience designer. Since charting seems to be a highly popular topic on this blog, I’ll focus on the creation of the new charting experience.
Maroon, Yellow, Blue and Grey
One thing you immediately notice when looking at the charts that people produce with Office 2003 (left side of the image 1) is that they all use the same colors: maroon, yellow, blue and grey. It is not too surprising when you realize that this is the default color scheme and you need to go through a dozen dialog boxes to change the colors and make the charts somewhat decent and professional looking. The charts you see on the right side of image 1 are found in recent publications like annual reports, newspapers and magazines. They are often created in graphical applications and use more subtle colors.
Image 1. Charts created with Office 2003 vs charts found in recent publications
Before we started redesigning the Office 2007 charting experience, we did a lot of research to get a better understanding of where the pain points are with our customers and what they expect from charting capabilities. This research showed that the most dissatisfaction with charting came from customer’s thinking that charts do not look good. The research also showed that clearly communicating data is the most important thing to achieve with a chart. This means that a chart needs to show all the necessary information to the viewer, but minimize the redundant information. Dissatisfying charts are illustrated in the Image 2 below. The chart on the left does not tell us what the colors mean while the chart on the right tells us what the colors mean in two places.
Given these two data points, our most important design goals were to create an experience that allowed our users to easily create good-looking and meaningful charts.
Image 2: Examples of charts with missing and with redundant information
A Process of Pencil Paper and PowerPoint
My favorite design tools are pencil and paper. These are the most efficient tools to explore different design solutions. In this case, through sketching we explored many different ways to create an experience that would easily allow people to create good looking and meaningful charts. The sketches as shown in Image 3 were discussed with the development team and used as an inspiration source for more ideas.
Image 3: Pencil and Paper Sketches
Some of the sketches were worked out in wireframe prototypes that were build in PowerPoint. This is a fast and easy way to create a conceptual prototype that people can comment on. We tested a series of wireframes as shown in Image 4. Experienced and non-experience users were asked what they thought about the designs. At the time we wanted to know how to introduce the concept of style. No one on the Excel team knew yet what a ‘style’ would mean. However, it appeared an effective way to enable users to easily create good looking charts thru things like color schemes. Similar to style, we found that structural variations were a good mechanism to help people to create meaningful charts. With wireframe images we also explored new interaction paradigms, where we tested the idea of taking over the whole screen for certain tasks (e.g. choosing a chart type). Testing the prototypes was extremely useful to help add direction to the deisgn; for instance this full-page concept of choosing a chart type did not work so well because users liked to keep the context of where they were working when choosing a design.
Image 4: Wire Frame prototype
To get a good feel for the actual experience, we build interactive prototypes. Prototyping the user experience is often the best way to discover problems and to communicate solutions. The interactive sketch in Image 5 explored a novel way of browsing different variations of the chart while keeping the context of the workbook intact. It appeared that it would be challenging to show the variations in such small thumbnails.
Image 5: interactive prototype
Later in the development cycle the prototypes were of higher fidelity and looked more like the final product. Image 6 shows a screenshot of a prototype that was used to optimize the ‘insert chart’ experience. In the usability study, people were asked to insert a chart, select data, and choose different layouts and styles. This prototype also shows the contextual tabs. These are tabs that only appear when the chart is selected. This was a good way to show variations of the chart while keeping the context intact.
Image 6: High-fidelity interactive prototype
Our goal was to create an experience that allowed people to easily create good-looking and meaningful charts. Because these were the most important goals, Quick Layouts and Styles are the two most prominent user interface elements. The Quick layout gallery ensures meaningful charts: no redundant information and no missing information. The Style gallery ensures a variety of good looking charts for various satiations. As a user experience designer I worked with the Excel team to give constant feedback of what the end product could be. The key thing to realize is that no one knows what we ship until we ship. Until then, through sketches, wireframes and interactive prototypes we explore the entire solution space, get user feedback and iterate until we have the best solutions. This process is illustrated in the image below.
PS Udated to remove interactive link ... it was causing problems
Wow. incredibly interesting. it's great to see that you folks looked at a number of clearly innovative designs. Thanks for this!
I would like to know more about your prototyping techniques. You mentioned that you did wireframe prototype using PowerPoint. How much is the resource on that? How is it diffirent from interactive prototype? And what tools do you use to create an interactive prototype this sophisticate?
Really impressive work here... and a great write up too. :-)
To me, the most obvious change to Excel/Office 2007 is the improved visual impact. Unlike some of the other impressive, advanced features, these changes hit you right away. The best examples of this are the Ribbon and the improved Charts and Shapes. They really put a smile on your face. Bravo guys.
Great writeup, thanks!
It always amazes me to see how much work goes on behind the scenes for things that most users take for granted.
Keep up the good work!
Getting kind of carried away with the "experience" stuff, aren't you?
Come back down to Earth.
I need to reiterate some comments I've seen on earlier threads that are now closed. Once again you seem to have completely ignored professional engineers, scientists, and business analysts with the latest version of Excel charts.
We need to anaylze hundreds or thousands of data points, almost always plotted on XY charts with multiple series and axes. The x-axis is often a time scale. We need to be able to manipulate the axes scales to zoom in on areas of interest. We need to identify points using text labels. We need to differentiate points within a series with different colors.
Version after version we wait for improvements for analyzing data using charts and all we get is more fluff to make column charts with gradient colors.
Please, focus in on your Excel power users for once, the folks who are using Excel 6 to 10 hours a day to analyze data.
Some simple suggestions:
1) For the axis scale min and max values, allow entry of a cell address instead of a fixed number. Alternatively, allow the user to zoom a window on the chart data area and zoom back to the previous axis scale settings.
2) Allow dates to be used for axis min, max, and units in XY charts, the same as availabe in line charts.
3) For each data series allow the user to enter a range of cells containing the label text to be plotted for each point.
4) Have a cell range that contains the color to plot the marker for each point, or just use the color in the cell containing the data point.
Some other issues:
It appears dates cannot be entered for an axis min or max anymore. Dates are converted to 0 when leaving the text box, unlike Excel 2003 where they are converted to the serial date.
Axis labels in date format disappear from the chart if changed to number format and back to a date format.
The live updating of marker size is useless because the selection bubbles makes the markers impossible to see.
When charts overlap, the selected chart does not come to the foreground, which means it must be moved to see changes in formating. Only the selection outline comes to the front
I also get the "Microsoft Office Excel can't display Clip Art" dialog (twice!) error everytime I select the Insert tab. I don't want to use Clip Art and I don't want to install it on my hard drive.
In "Format Data Series" the "Marker Fill" dialog does not work. The radio buttons cannot be selected.
There does not seem to be any way to change marker color form the Format Data Series Dialog.
I have one question. Why is there no template for a bar chart with lines as well? This is very useful fofinancial reporting.
mcmanuslive is obviously not enjoying the "experience".
I've had similar experiences with Beta 2, and have been assured that much of it will be fixed by the Technical Review. They have made great improvements at each beta stage so far, so maybe they will actually get most or all of it done. By "it" I mean the features that worked in 2003 and do not work in 2007; the proposed new items listed in 1, 3, and 4 must be accomplished in VBA, so my business will continue to thrive.
The only thing that they are refusing to fix is the bit with overlapping charts.
I do not plan to switch to 2007 as my main development version of Excel, although I'm sure some clients will in fact be using 2007. The enhancements to Excel do not justify the penalties of upgrading. Until I have much more ready control over the interface, which 97 through 2003 had and 2007 has taken away, I will feel disabled as a developer.
In addition to what McManus says, Excel should let the user specify at least one special x- and one special y-series per bar/column/XY chart. For every point entered in this series, Excel should plot a line at that point on the respective axis, stretching across the entire chart.
This would make plotting of cut-offs/thresholds, time periods, and confidence intervals, MUCH easier.
In studies I have been involved in, we have had to draw vertical lines by hand (to indicate, e.g., start and end dates or to distinguish phenomena of interest.) This is inaccurate, unpretty (it is nigh impossible to get the lines to join the borders of the plot area), and gets out of kilter fast if the data are changed (e.g., more data is added, causing the graph to compress but the line not to move correspondingly.)
Incidentally, the trendline feature really should also provide the option for individual confidence intervals at a user-specified level (e.g. 95%.) SPSS does this. (These are lines running parallel to, at a distance from, the trend line.)
I second all that McManus has already pointed out.
As a follow-up to mcmanuslive comments on July14th, Dave Gainers earlier post on Some Words About Charting (blogs.msdn.com/.../615136.aspx) explains the roadmap for charting. Basically, everything we wanted to do this release would not fit into the planned time frame so it will be spread out over multiple releases. We are still very open to all of your suggests. I keep a running log of these that will be considered for the next release. So please keep the feedback coming. As for the bugs mentioned, all of these will be fixed for RTM except for the following one.
"When charts overlap, the selected chart does not come to the foreground, which means it must be moved to see changes in formatting. Only the selection outline comes to the front."
We dont have the resources to change this behavior before our final release. However, I am interested in your feedback on this. Do you prefer the Excel 2003 behavior and what scenarios did you find it beneficial? Originally this behavior was changed to be more consistent with other graphics (E2Os) in Excel 2007.
I did not even notice the new behavior! :-D
Scott, can you give us any indication of when Excel's statistical functions will be updated? They have not changed in years. And they are a reason why Excel is deemed unfit for serious use by academia/business.
Compared to building a new charting engine from the ground up, it should be a piece of cake to do this. You could even sell it as a separate SKU, "Statistic Tools for Office." If you could get, say, college kids in stat classes to buy it instead of using SPSS, you'd make a fortune!
Alternately, you could incrementally add new functions to Excel proper over time--a powerful reason to upgrade. This seems to work for SPSS (despite its outrageous prices.)
Francis, you're behind on your reading about stats function upgrades in recent Excel versions. Excel 2002 improved the normal distribution functions, and Excel 2003 improved the pseudorandom number generator function (RAND), the linear regression functions, the variance/standard deviation functions, and the inverse continuous distribution functions.
As for spending money wisely on stats software, nothing beats R.