Data Storytelling
with PowerBI

Sam Miles | December 18th, 2018

Have you ever sat through a presentation that hits a slide of numbers and data points which immediately results in everyone’s eyes glazing over? Ever given that presentation? I have. It’s not fun and it often causes presenters to fly through these slides even though the data is the most important information. The problem isn’t the data. The problem is the jarring exit from the flow of the presentation to “here-are-the-numbers-that-finance-says-we-have-to-show.” Flashing a slide of graphs and numbers likely raises more questions than answers. “Where did those numbers come from?” “What does that graph mean?” “How does this information improve my day-to-day tasks?”

That’s where PowerBI can help. PowerBI is a data storytelling platform to process, organize, and understand your dataset. With its ability to connect to nearly any data source and to generate interactive reports, the platform provides ways to build step by step narratives starting with high level concepts and end with specific, actionable insights. At Heretik, we use PowerBI to understand how clients use our product to empower our customer success team to provide an exceptional level of service and to ship better software.

The output of PowerBI is a shareable, online report that automatically updates to provide real-time insights. This was a gamechanger for us. Instead of having this information presented quarterly at an all hands meeting, anyone can explore our data to answer their specific questions of client usage. This data driven decision-making leads to less time wasted arguing about gut feelings and instead allows us to spend more time building the best product possible for our clients.

Now let’s explore how to find the story in your data. Here is our recommended approach for doing this with PowerBI:

Go get your data

PowerBI provides dozens of connectors to get your data from wherever it currently lives. Out of the box, it supports building queries of Excel files, SQL Server Databases, Azure Services, Salesforce, Microsoft Exchange, Google Analytics, Mailchimp, Facebook, (I think you get the point) and the list grows with each release. Importing data is as easy as couple clicks.

Organize, clean-up, and take out the trash

When working on large datasets, it’s critical to not get overwhelmed with noise. Make sure to trim down the number of columns your queries bring in. If you have an idea of how your report will look, a good rule of thumb is if it won’t be displayed or isn’t part of a calculation, it’s probably noise. This involves cleaning up the data to be in a presentable state. PowerBI’s ‘Query Editor’ is a tool that allows you to make these changes to your data. None of the changes made using the ‘Query Editor’ will affect the original data so you can feel confident making edits as needed.

Understand your data’s boundaries and scale

Imagine building a report for employee evaluations. You’ve gotten the data and performed cleanup. You see an employee received a score of 341. Without things like the maximum, minimum, and median scores, 341 doesn’t mean much. If it’s 341 of 500 possible, it could be above average. If it’s out of 5, it’s an error that cleanup missed. Understanding the dataset starts one column at a time.

Build relationships and hierarchy

PowerBI makes connecting data from multiple sources simple with the ‘Relationships’ tab. Click and drag columns between tables to create relationships. Without getting too technical, relationships are important for creating effective aggregate level views of data and the driving force for the presentation features used when building reports.

Creating a hierarchy is another great feature that may be unfamiliar to new users of PowerBI. Hierarchies are built in the ‘Visualizations’ panel. An example hierarchy would be Geography which would include columns such as Country, State/Province, City. When viewing a report created using a hierarchy, users can select the drilldown option to make aggregate reports more targeted. Take the time to setup hierarchies to tell your story. Pro-tip: Use the built-in hierarchy for dates when building financial reports. One interactive report instead of multiple yearly, quarterly, or monthly reports will save time and headache.

Ask questions of your data

While PowerBI supports literally asking questions of the data, I’d recommend building your first report. Start with something specific instead of broad. This will force you to think of which columns are needed to answer that question. By dragging columns from the Fields panel to the ‘Visualizations’ panel, PowerBI will do its best infer a graph style that makes sense for your data. Start to build the answer to your question by pulling in the relevant columns and experimenting with visualizations.

Build your story by starting at a simple, high level view of the data. Explore relationships by clicking through each chart to see what you can learn. Use the hierarchies to drill into specific geographies to discover new opportunities. At Heretik, we try to spot which features that don’t see much usage. We then try the question of “Why not?” If we can’t answer with data alone, we ask clients better questions to get to the root causes faster.

Above we’ve covered the high-level strategy to use PowerBI to turn a mountain of data into a gold mine. If you’d be interested in a more technical walkthrough post, let us know. Heretik utilizes Power BI to help visualize our data. There are a ton of great resources online to learn to use PowerBI. To get started, you can download PowerBI for Desktop for free from their site here. The paid tiers are geared toward companies who desire collaboration, privacy, and large-scale processing.

This post was inspired by a great talk by Jeff Lumpkin. If you are interested in learning PowerBI at your own pace, I would recommend the free Guided Learning blog series found here.


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Sam is a Software Engineer at Heretik. He is passionate about building elegant web applications to help people work smarter, not harder. Prior to Heretik, he was a software engineer at Thomson Reuters and TruePad.