How Good are the Visualization Capabilities of Microsoft Power BI? How Good are the Visualization Capabilities of Microsoft Power BI?
The number of visuals in Power BI is vast, and the aim of this article is to provide an overview of the Microsoft... How Good are the Visualization Capabilities of Microsoft Power BI?

The number of visuals in Power BI is vast, and the aim of this article is to provide an overview of the Microsoft Power BI data visualization potential to create most of the visuals.

This article is an excerpt from the book Microsoft Power BI Quick Start Guide, Second Edition by Devin Knight, Mitchell Pearson, Bradley Schacht, and Erin Ostrowsky – A book that provides an accessible fast paced introduction to all aspects of Power BI for new or aspiring BI professionals, data analysts, and data visualizers. It helps you bring your data to life through data modeling, visualization, digital storytelling, and more.

It is impossible to do an in-depth tour of all the features that Power Bi provide; instead, we will focus on analyzing the basic configuration and right usage for various built-in visuals, and how this tool lets you acquire custom visuals not included in Power BI by default. At the time of this article’s publication, there are 36 readily available visuals in Power BI Desktop including the Shape map and Azure map visuals that are in preview and must first manually be enabled to use.

With Power BI’s rapid update cycle, there will be many visuals added to the application over time. If you would like to leverage these as soon as they are available, you can find them in the Preview features section of Power BI Desktop’s options. The figure below shows how to access the Preview features setting. Once you have enabled something in this area, it usually requires you to restart the Power BI Desktop, so make sure to save your work!

To turn on Preview features, click File | Options and settings | Options | Preview features and check the box next to Shape map visual and Azure map visual. 

Figure 1: Enable Power BI preview features on the Options menu 

As features are moved from preview to generally available, they will automatically fall off the preview features list and be automatically available upon loading Power BI Desktop. There are many other preview features available but because they are not related to visualizations, we will skip them for this article.

Report View basics

As soon as you launch the Power BI Desktop and close the initial splash screen, you will find yourself in the Report View, which is where you will stay for the duration of this article.

Let us review the key areas of the Power BI Desktop:  

1. Report view: Displays the report canvas, page navigation, and panes for customizing visualizations within the report. This is the default view open when the Power BI Desktop is launched. 

2. Report canvas: The main design area holding all report visuals.  

3. More visuals: A menu with options to access custom visuals from AppSource or local files. After importing, these will appear in the Visualizations pane.  

4. Filters pane: Apply filters to various scopes:  

  • Filters on this page applies to every visual on the selected page. 
  • Filters on all pages applies to every visual on every page in the report.
  • Filters on this visual only appears when a visual is selected, and only affects the selected visual

5. Visualizations pane: Consists of four sections working together to customize the data and formatting of visualizations:  

  • The Visuals section displays all available visualizations including enabled preview and imported custom visuals.  
  • The Fields section displays buckets used to populate the different areas on the visual and varies based on the visual chosen. For instance, a table will have a single Values bucket, while a pie chart will have Legend, Details, Values, and Tooltips buckets.  
  • The Format section controls the look and feel of the visual. The formatting options will vary based on the visual selected but generally include title, font size and color, and data label settings.  
  • The Analytics section allows for the addition of reference lines like minimum or maximum thresholds, the median line, and an average line. The options will vary based on the visual selected and often allow for both static and data-driven lines. 

6. Fields pane: Displays all available fields to be added to visuals and filters. If a table or column is hidden in the data view it will not appear in the Fields pane.  

7. Page navigation: Select which report page to display on the canvas. Each page has a limited work area where visuals are displayed, so it is common to have more than one page in a Power BI report. Pages can be added by clicking the plus button at the end of the page list.  

Figure 2: First view of Power BI Desktop 

Creating new visuals  

Before exploring the various visualizations available in Power BI let us look at the three ways to add visuals to the report canvas. All these methods will result in the same final product. However, depending on the type of visualization needed it may cut a few clicks off your workflow to use one method over another.  

The first, and least common, method for adding a visual is using the New visual button on the ribbon. This will add a blank stacked column chart to the Report canvas at which point you can start to drag and drop fields or check the box next to a field to add it to the visual. If a stacked bar chart is not the desired visual, it can be changed by selecting a different visual from the Visualizations pane: 

Figure 3: New visual button on the Home ribbon to add a blank visual Review 

The second method for creating a new visual is starting from the Fields pane. To get started simply check the box next to a field or drag a field and drop it on the Values bucket in the Visualizations pane. A new visual will be created based on the data type of the field selected. The result is generally a clustered column chart for numeric fields and a table for non-numeric fields. You can then change to the desired visual if the correct type was not generated automatically.

Microsoft Power BI data visualization Figure 4: Create a new visual by checking the box next to any item in the field list 

The final method is to start from the Visualizations pane, which allows for a more customized visualization creation experience. Using this method, you will first determine the type of visual needed and select it from the list. The result will be a blank visual that can then be populated with the desired fields being checked off or dragged from the Fields pane to the field buckets in the Visualizations pane. 

Microsoft Power BI data visualizationFigure 5: Create a blank visual of your choice by clicking on any item in the Visualizations pane 

Summary of Microsoft Power BI Data Visualization

Now that you have a good understanding of the various methods of creating new visualizations on the Report canvas, you are now ready to get to work on building high-impact visuals. The book Microsoft Power BI Quick Start Guide, Second Edition dives deep further into numerous other topics pertaining to visualizing data including filtering visualizations and data, visualizing tabular datacategorical datatrend dataKPI datadata using cardsgeographical data, natural language, visuals from analyticsPower BI custom visuals, and data visualization tips and tricks. 

About the Authors:

Devin Knight, a Microsoft Data Platform MVP and the President at Pragmatic Works Training. At Pragmatic Works, Devin determines which courses are created, delivered, and updated for customers, including 15+ Power BI courses.  

Mitchell Pearson has worked as a Data Platform Consultant and Trainer for the last 8 years. Mitchell has authored books on SQL Server, Power BI and Power Platform. Mitchell is very active in the community: Running the local Power BI User Group, presenting user groups locally and virtually, and creating YouTube videos for MitchellSQL 

Bradley Schacht is a Senior Cloud Solution Architect (Data Platform) on the Microsoft State and Local Government team based in Jacksonville, FL. Bradley has authored 3 other SQL Server books.  

Erin Ostrowsky is a creative and passionate lifelong learner. Erin focuses on the Power Platform tools and loves working on teams to build business intelligence solutions that businesses use and enjoy. 

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