Dear Microsoft Excel team

Dear Microsoft Excel team,

In the last all hands meeting, you probably heard that I’ve been temporarily assigned as program manager of Microsoft Excel 2007. Granted this is an extraordinary action, but these are extraordinary times, my friends.

In the spirit of openness, I will tell you we will be making some specific changes to the product. We must work quickly as my time here is limited. I’m not even an Microsoft employee and I’m sure HR will have some say in the matter once they figure out what’s going on.

In my limited time we will improve one specific thing, Excel’s charting and data visualization functionality. People live and, unfortunately, die on infographics and frankly, the situation in Excel 2007 right now is deeply...busted.

We will improve the situation by working on five projects:

Project 1: Improve the defaults: Making a basic chart in Excel with default settings is easy but the results are poor from a data visualization standpoint. For instance, Excel’s default colors do not provide good contrast and nearly all Excel charts are laden with chart-junk. Let’s get out the brooms! I know many of you have read Tufte. Good infographics are within our reach. Let’s not multiply choice, but gently guide users to a limited set of good choices.

Incidentally, 3D charts will be turned off globally, although users can easily turn it back on by going to Preferences, selecting the Charting tab, opening the Advanced Charting subdialog box, finding the "Pimp my ride" sub-sub tab (it’s down there in the back, just look for it!), and choosing both the "3D" and "extra glossy" checkboxes. There may also be some permissions issues here, too.

Project 2: Provide guidance on chart types: Users choose from a large variety of chart types in Excel without any background in effective data visualization principles. As a result, users can select from charts that are known to be ineffective in displaying data. These chart types include: pie charts, stacked column charts, clustered bar charts, cone charts, pseudo 3-D charts.

Well, we’re going to solve some of that problem in Phase 1 by removing ineffective chart types. However, we can do better. We’re the intellisense guys, remember! We will intelligently introspect on selected data to present no more than three good charting choices to a user. If lots of series are selected, then we offer multi-line and parallel trellis graphs as options. If it’s a single series with just a few values, then we show bar. If it’s a lot of data with a category dimension, we can offer box charts. We can do this.

Project 3: Provide missing chart types: As the right hand taketh away (Project 1), the left hand giveth. Excel lacks a number of effective chart types including: box charts, bullet charts, dot plots, trellis displays. Tableau’s got all this advanced infovis stuff, why don’t we? This is our chance to exercise innovation and move the industry forward.

Project 4. Create a common packaging format for Excel add-ins: Mozilla Firefox provides an excellent example of how to build a lightweight and easy to use extension process. There, I said it. Let me say it again: Mozilla Firefox provides an excellent example of how to build a lightweight and easy to use extension process. Let’s all say it together. Mozilla Firefox provides an excellent example of how to build a lightweight and easy to use extension process. Whew! Feel liberated?

Let’s face it, using Excel add-ins is difficult, confusing and, at times, frightening, to users. Furthermore, add-ins from different providers are packaged differently. There’s no consistent process to add functionality to Excel.

We must make it easier for ordinary users to innovate and add features they need to Excel. A side benefit of this project will be that this will damp down our need to pack the product with every conceivable feature under the sun. What’s more, we can harvest the best of these add-ins as built-in features for future versions of Excel. That’s what Firefox has done.

Project 5: Develop a community around Excel: There are a number of practitioners providing good technical advice for Excel charting. However, even this excellent technical advice is not reaching users. A recent user group meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey featuring several Excel luminaries got only 50 attendees!When SAS puts together a user conference, they have thousands of attendees and hundreds of papers are presented. They have it in a convention center for goodness sake.

Users don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know that they need to keep learning and sharing what they know. We need to celebrate the luminaries among our users that help fill the inevitable gaps in our products. And we need to encourage innovation and sharing from our lead users.

That’s it. Just five things. Five things that will make Excel a better product and the world a better place. Let’s get to work. One way or another these changes must come to Excel even if I have to do them myself.

Megalomanically yours,

Chris Gemignani

Microsoft Excel 2007 Program Manager

Note: Concept cribbed from the temporarily ennobled Jonathan ’Wolf’ Rentzsch. Thanks to Kelly O’Day for indirect inspiration.