Two Common Excel Analysis Problems and How to Solve Them

By Ross Perez 2013/05/08
If you work with data and you’ve had your ear to the ground lately, then it’s likely you’ve been hearing a good deal about big data, the cloud, and non-relational databases like Hadoop. Although these new technologies are changing the data analysis industry and deserve a large amount of attention, in fairness many people are struggling with a less glamorous but equally important tool: Excel.

Excel has many advantages. It is easy to use and learn, it is a lightweight and straightforward way to store data, the formulas are powerful and its ubiquity ensures that you will never have to wonder if a colleague or customer will be able to see your data.

Chart Wizard... the first problem

However, after storing data in a spreadsheet, the natural next step is to create charts and graphs with the data. This brings us to the first Excel analysis roadblock. Of course you can create visualizations with the chart wizard, but that is exactly the problem! The chart wizard is slow, ungainly, hard to use and inflexible. What if you have the wrong cell range? Want to try a different chart type? Want to change colors? All of these frustratingly common situations drive us right back to the wizard. Next. Next. Next…. Next. Next.

Excel analysis cycle

Of course this is not how our minds work. We don’t work in a linear path as we are analyzing data, we work in a cyclical path. Tableau Desktop helps to solve this particular Excel analysis problem by allowing you to connect to your Excel data and create charts and graphs while respecting the natural cycle of data analysis. Need to change your data? Simply edit your file and refresh. Want to change chart types, add a second axis, see the difference over time or the running total? All of these actions are a single click or a drag and drop away. By ditching the wizard paradigm and enabling straightforward drag and drop analysis, Tableau can save you an enormous amount of time and frustration when analyzing Excel data.

Expert trick: Drag and drop any Excel file on top of Tableau to get started faster.

Making sharing and reporting easier

However, analysis is often only the first step in a task. After finding a useful or interesting answer, the natural next step is to want to share that finding with others. This is the second major difficulty people have with Excel analysis. There is really no other option than sending a file with static charts that may break at different screen sizes and resolutions. In fact, the only guarantee you have with Excel reporting is that you will be going back and making edits.

Enter Tableau Server. Once you have created an interactive visualization using Tableau Desktop, simply publish it to Server with a click and send them a link to the visualization (which can be viewed in any browser as a web page - no plug-ins required). Or, you can embed a live copy of the visualization on your corporate intranet or wiki page (similar to how the visualizations in this gallery have been embedded within a webpage). You can also enable the visualization to update automatically when you save or change your Excel file. For those who report daily, weekly, or even monthly with Excel, this means you can largely automate the hours you spend in Excel.

Expert trick: Want to enable your next Excel dashboard to update automatically? Simply place an Excel file in a shared network drive and make sure to publish your directly connected workbook without external files.

The upshot is that Tableau is a fantastic complement to the data analysis capabilities in Excel. You can do all of the calculations and visualizations you have always done, but you can accomplish them more efficiently, more beautifully and in a way that is much easier to share with others. See how in the short, 3 minute video below.

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Submitted by Nick H. on

I'm not saying it's a better alternative, but there are some pretty neat things you can do in Excel. I'm a fan of the following example to demonstrate you can do more than just send "a file with static charts that may break at different screen sizes and resolutions." And that's from 2008.

I believe Excel did away with Chart Wizard for 2010. Also - from a connection I'm familiar with, you can refresh SQL Server connections automatically upon opening the workbook, every 60 minutes, or on-demand...

I'm not trying to say your points are invalid - Tableau brings significant benefits to Excel reporting in certain areas and I'm a big fan - but I also have to defend my first love, Excel.