Thoughts On Visio And How It Could Integrate With Power BI

The recent release of Visio Online (which means most people with an Office 365 subscription can now see Visio diagrams in the browser) and updates for Visio Pro for Office 365 (the desktop version of Visio, needed for creating diagrams, available on subscription but annoyingly not included in any of the Office 365 Enterprise plans) made me wonder if there’s anything new for BI pros in the latest version of Visio. This is a subject I come back to every few years – the last time was in back in 2013 – but I’m still a bit disappointed by some aspects of Visio when it comes to working with data even though there’s a massive amount of potential there.

To recap, there are actually two features of Visio that are interesting for BI purposes. First, you can import data into Visio and then link rows of data to shapes in your diagram (see here for a basic intro; this presentation has a lot more detail and is a must-read) to create data-linked diagrams; if your data source is an Excel workbook stored in SharePoint Online/OneDrive for Business or a SharePoint Online list then you can even refresh the data in Visio Online in the browser. While it doesn’t do exactly the same thing, the fact that the Synoptic Panel custom visual for Power BI is so popular shows that people really like the idea of seeing their data visualised in diagram form. If you know what you’re doing, you can do some really amazing stuff with Visio data-linked diagrams: not just change shape colours but also their formatting, geometry, size and more.

Secondly there are Pivot Diagrams, the Visio equivalent of Excel’s PivotTables. This blog post by David Parker is a really good guide to what they can do; like PivotTables they can even be linked direct to SSAS. The enduring popularity of the old Proclarity Decomposition Tree and the fact that so many people want something similar to be added to Power BI shows the appeal that this way of analysing data has for BI pros and Visio Pivot Diagrams are much more powerful than any custom visual the Power BI team could hope to develop.

So where does Visio fall short and what could be done about it? Here are some thoughts:

  • The data import options are limited, both in terms of where you can get data from and what you can do with it after that. These are all problems that Excel has solved in recent years with Power Pivot and Power Query, so why not borrow what Excel have implemented? Power Query/Get & Transform functionality for data loading and transformation, and a Visio Data Model (like the Excel Data Model/Power Pivot) would solve all these problems at a stroke and mean that anyone who had experience with Excel or Power BI would be able to move over to using Visio for BI easily.
  • Publishing to Office 365 is all well and good, but publishing to Power BI would also be useful. This might involve:
    • The ability to publish Visio diagrams to Power BI in the same way we can publish Excel workbooks to Power BI today.
    • A Visio equivalent to “Analyze in Excel” so you could create Pivot Diagrams connected to Power BI datasets. This should be straightforward to implement because Pivot Diagrams already work with SSAS, so all you would need to do is fire the same MDX at Power BI.
    • Once published, the ability to pin Visio diagrams to a Power BI dashboard.
    • The ability to schedule data refresh in the same way you can today with Power BI datasets and Excel workbooks.
  • The separate and relatively pricey ($13USD per month) subscription needed for Visio on the desktop suggests that Microsoft now thinks of it as a niche product, not something that even a top-of-the-range Office 365 E5 subscriber gets by default. I guess they’re allowed to make that assumption but it will be very hard for a BI pro to justify that expense for a product that isn’t essential for their job. Adding Visio into the top Office 365 SKUs would expose it to a much wider audience including BI pros. Incidentally the same argument can be made about Visio’s newly re-acquired ability to create diagrams from relational databases: it looks nice, but how many DBAs will be able to justify the cost of a subscription just for it?

In summary, while I know that I’m guilty of looking at Visio from a BI pro point of view and that data visualisation isn’t necessarily Visio’s primary purpose, I do think both Visio and Power BI could both benefit a lot from closer integration just as Excel and Power BI have done in recent years. With a bit of investment from both teams we could have another killer feature added to Power BI, one that none of Microsoft’s competitors could begin to match.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts On Visio And How It Could Integrate With Power BI

  1. Thanks for writing this Chris (and the links to my posts). There is no doubt that the Visio Online capability (with its JavaScript api too) raises some great possibilities for integrating Visio into a PowerBI scenario. This is something that we Visio MVPs have been pushing for. Visio does have millions of users who love it for the desktop capabilities alone, but I have always used it as a data visualisation system. The increased availability of interacting with data-linked Visio diagrams in the web should encourage professionals from other disciplines to seriously consider it as part of the business and operational intelligence solutions.

  2. Hi Chris – great topic. Visio has lots of potential for “visually” presenting data to management. Organization Charts for example give management a quick look at their organization, both in size, shape, and (with color formatting) status of positions (Needs, Leaving, Filled, etc.) The issue with visio is it’s limited features in interfacing with data storage options (Excel, Access, PeopleSoft, SQL, etc. should all be options, but just are not at this time.) In addition, when you import data, visio has a nasty habit of reorganizing the “boxes on the page” to fit what it thinks is a best fit, when all we really wanted was to update meta-data (names, start date, finish date, box color, etc.). It’s good to see this valuable tool finally getting some attention.

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