About the Author
Loren Abdulezer is CEO and president of Evolving Technologies Corporation, a New York-based technology consulting firm that specializes in visual data analysis. He has a long-standing record in the Xcelsius community and has been a staunch proponent of the technology since its early days.
Loren is the editor-in-chief of Xcelsius Journal (www.XcelsiusJournal.com), an online magazine dedicated to users in the Xcelsius user community. Loren also started the website Xcelsius Best Practices (www.XcelsiusBestPractices.com). Loren is the author of Excel Best Practices for Business and Escape from Excel Hell. He served as the technical editor of Crystal Xcelsius For Dummies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A broad and growing community of professionals regularly prepares or needs to prepare dashboards and interactive visualizations and reports. Like many of those other professionals, I have used Excel to create useful reports and dashboards. The problem is that unless I incorporated extensive amounts of one-off code, Excel lacked some essential features that I was looking for:
- The ability to design a dashboard interface by dragging and dropping components on a canvas
- The ability to map visual components to a "live" spreadsheet built using my Excel models
The ability to deploy simple, self-contained dashboards that are suited for visual data analysis by ordinary users
Those capabilities existed in Xcelsius 3.0. Two product generations later, Xcelsius 2008 has undergone a metamorphosis; Xcelsius now includes a well-honed and highly integrated spreadsheet and dashboard design environment, significantly greater spreadsheet functionality, more visual components and interface options, a revamped and expanded framework for data connectivity, and the ability to create entirely new custom-designed components on equal footing with built-in components.
This is great stuff. It sounds like everybody ought to be using Xcelsius 2008, for anything and everything. But Xcelsius 2008 isn't intended to be a jack-of-all-trades. First and foremost, Xcelsius 2008 is a serious tool for building interactive dashboards and intelligent visualizations. The secret to its power is how it is joined at the hip with spreadsheets.
Xcelsius 2008 is remarkably easy to use. From a dashboard layout perspective, everything is point and click. You don't need much in the way of spreadsheet prowess to start doing interesting and useful things with Xcelsius. This quick bang for the buck is like kindling wood in a furnace: It's enough to get a flame started, but it won't heat up the room. To get a roaring and self-sustaining fire, you need to take things to the next level.
So what is stopping you from building better dashboards? The biggest challenge holding most people back is lack of time. If you are busy worrying about monitoring and meeting production quotas, or allocating budgets among competing projects, you are probably not going to spend a lot of time improving on a dashboard design once you get it working. Maybe for an occasional dashboard, that's smart thinking. If your dashboard serves you well, you will no doubt use it to do more things. Who knows? Maybe you need to enable weekly or daily analysis in addition to monthly analysis.
Say that you want to add a second product line, monitored by a dashboard. You start with your already working dashboard design as your template and add more features. As you keep cloning, you are stepping up your maintenance responsibilities and possibly bloating your dashboard. At some point not far down the road, the dashboard capabilities plateau. It is not nearly agile enough to keep up with changing requirements or expectations. This is where best practices come into play. I know that time is premium for you. It is for everyone. To save you valuable time, I have worked out a wealth of best practices and techniques so that you don't need to reinvent the wheel.
In this book, I do a few other things:
- Introduce you to the features you need to know. I get you started with setting up your Xcelsius workspace. I introduce you to essential components and show you how to use them. I help you build up your spreadsheet skills in an Xcelsius-centric way.
- Show you how to use the new and important features of Xcelsius 2008 so that you can quickly transition to this newer technology.
- Cover the essential components you will regularly be using in dashboards, from charts to dials, gauges, sliders, and maps. I cover the standard features such as drill down and alerts.
- Show how to turbo-charge the various dashboard components so that they do things you wouldn't ordinarily expect. For instance, you'll learn how to use a single dial on a dashboard to set the values of dozens or hundreds of variables.
- Show how to design simple and effective dashboard interfaces. When these need to be scaled up to do complex things, the designs don't change, and they down break down.
- Describe how the preparation and processing of data, including techniques for validating and structuring of data, play a central role in dashboard best practices.
- Devote whole chapters to constructing spreadsheet formulas embedded in dashboards, statistical analysis, financial analysis, and working with less–than-optimal data.
- Show how to utilize features of Xcelsius 2008 for remote data connectivity, such as XML maps and Web Services.
Explain how to construct custom components.
The undercurrent that runs through this book is empowerment. Every step of the way, I show how you can work smarter by using best practices.
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