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7 Key Differences Between Exago BI and Spreadsheets

by | Reporting

row of apples and orange

The key to user adoption is making your application as simple as possible for your end users. That’s a challenge when your offering is packed with powerful features that your users have never seen before. The trick is giving them a familiar point of entry. For Exago BI, that comfort zone is spreadsheets.

More likely than not, a spreadsheet application is the first car your users learned to drive and is their point of reference or “mental model” for all things data. While building an innovative product with a great design that stands out in a crowded marketplace is an inherent goal for any software company, failing to match or even recognize users’ mental model is a hindrance to adoption — the science behind UI/UX says so.

Because we’ve seen The Science, the Exago BI Advanced Report builder is designed to help spreadsheet users feel at home. But after this easy orientation, something of a paradigm-shift will need to happen for users to leave the world of flat spreadsheets and enter the realm of reporting against an actual database. To make this transition (and end user training) a success, we’ve laid out the 7 key differences between spreadsheets and BI new users should understand.

The UI

Most users won’t need to navigate the full Advanced Report builder right away — or ever, in many cases. The starting point for most users is running prebuilt canned reports provided by you, their SaaS vendor. Once they get comfortable with that step, they can interact with canned reports in HTML to edit the styling to their taste or even begin playing with the data by changing sorts or adding conditional formatting. The final step before taking off the training wheels entirely and saying goodbye to canned reports altogether is duplicating canned reports and customizing them.

More likely than not, a spreadsheet application is the first car your users learned to drive.

Once users do progress beyond canned reports and begin building their own ad hoc reports from scratch, they will need to get acquainted with all of the fun new tools in their shiny new toolbox. This is where designing and teaching around mental models can help land (and eventually expand) users: including a few familiar visual cues that allude to spreadsheets-past will get them accustomed to the new environment quickly. The quicker they feel comfortable building basic ad hoc reports, the quicker they will want to expand their use of the product by upgrading to more advanced features with more complex functionality. And once you gain a few power users who love using your product, they will convert their peers for you.


Let’s move beyond the big picture for a second and focus on something very small, yet vital to the power afforded by BI reporting: the cell. Once users do get into building their own ad hoc reports, there are major differences at the cell level that change their relationship to the data.

While both spreadsheets and the Exago BI Advanced Report builder contain cells, and those cells have a similar naming convention (A4, D20, F16), the resemblance ends there. Where a spreadsheet cell would hold a single value such as “Batman,” the correlating cell in Exago BI would instead hold the Superhero field name. Field names are placeholders for complete columns of values. So the Superhero Name field would not just include Batman, but Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Captain Marvel, and so on.

This may be confusing at first, but once users see how much time and manual data entry the report builder is saving them, they will dance in their desk chairs (or do the running man at their standing desks). No more typing each hero’s name into individual cells in the Hero column — now they can simply drag the entire column onto the report! No more creating their own (siloed) datasets one cell at a time — now they have entire living, breathing transactional databases at their fingertips, ready to report off at a moment’s notice.

When users move from typing up spreadsheets to building ad hoc reports, they have more time to spend analyzing data instead of logging it.


It’s not only the cells in BI reporting that carry more processing power than a spreadsheet: so do the different sections of a report. Sections are built to be dynamic and respond to changes in the data so the user doesn’t have to manually update the report.

Exago report sections, shown in cascading form. Headers and footers bookend the sections within them.

You only have to design a section once, and then it repeats for each value in the field. For example, if you’re interested in viewing superheroes and their respective powers, you would want to see each superhero name only once, followed by all the powers for that hero. You wouldn’t want to see the hero’s name repeated every time one of her powers is listed. To avoid that, you would create a Group Header for the Superhero Name field, then a Detail area below for the power data.

This way, if superheroes level up and gain new powers, the Detail section adds the new rows without affecting the other sections of the report. Additionally, if any superheroes have their statuses revoked, they and their power data will be removed from the report entirely without the user having to touch it.

The Anatomy of a Report in Exago BI (pictured right) shows the order sections appear on a report and the types of content each section may contain.

Live Data

Live Data is likely an entirely new concept to users who have only worked with spreadsheets before, but it’s another example of how BI “works smarter not harder” (I know, I’m sorry, I had to).

With spreadsheets, you see all of the data all of the time. In Exago BI, you build the report with sample data (Superhero 1, Superhero 2, Superhero 3), then see the actual values or Live Data once you run or execute the report to retrieve them. As anyone who has had the task of maintaining their company’s spreadsheets knows, static data goes stale very quickly if it isn’t frequently updated, making it useless or even counterproductive to businesses. In BI, the data comes from a database, likely kept in the cloud and maintained by DBAs, so that data stays fresh and live. If Superman dies on a mission, a report using Live Data will reflect that change as soon as the database is refreshed whereas a spreadsheet has to be fixed manually.

“But why switch Live Data on and off if it’s the best, freshest data?” users may wonder. Well, report executions query the database, which takes processing power; for peak system performance, Exago BI uses sample data while the report structure is still being streamlined. This gives users the best of both worlds: a report that loads quickly when they’re ready to view it and a report design that’s easy to manage.


Interactivity, like Live Data, is a new concept to spreadsheet savants. Users “interact” with reports when they access them in HTML post-execution, which in layman’s terms means they are editing the report output and not the underlying report design or structure. So users might tweak an existing report’s font and formatting while interacting with it, but they aren’t building it ad hoc from the ground up and making decisions like which data objects to include, how to group them, or what formulas to use.

When users move from typing up spreadsheets to building ad hoc reports, they have more time to spend analyzing data instead of logging it.

Interacting with a report is about customizing it, shaping it around the current business need, and seeing how data responds to superficial changes like sorts, filters, and conditional formatting. Users don’t need access to the Advanced Report Builder to interact with reports, so it is also a common preliminary step for new users. It’s likely they will interact with canned reports in this way before progressing to building ad hoc reports, as previously mentioned.

When users interact with a report, they preview it in its final version, complete with Live Data, and make last-minute adjustments in real time before printing, scheduling, or exporting it so they aren’t sending it off blind.


If users were in awe of how much one cell can do in a report, I don’t even know how they’re going to feel when they see how much they can do with a single formula. If you happen to know whether your customers are standing desk people (aka one-uppers), you should let them know that they should probably sit down for this one.

First of all, they can throw cell ranges out the window (only if they’re biodegradable). In Exago BI, only a single cell containing a field has to be referenced in order to affect all the values in that field (think [B2] as opposed to [B2]-[B47]), and that’s only when a cell has to be referenced at all! Most formulas just require some combination of functions and field names.

Secondly, there’s the Formula Builder. It’s kind of like a wise mentor that actually makes formulas more approachable than a cold, uncaring spreadsheet does with its austere tooltips. The Formula Builder is not only a comprehensive encyclopedia that explains how and when to use all of the functions that are available, it also teaches users how to construct formulas as they go. It also autofills functions and field names as they type, highlighting incorrect syntax so users know if they’ve made a typo or an error.


Exago formula editor

The Exago formula editor, featuring color-coded formula elements (1), automatic syntax error flagging (2), auto-complete suggestions (3), and contextual help (4).


Lastly, and most importantly, is the sheer possibility formulas offer report builders. Users can do pretty much any calculation or transformation imaginable on the report itself, and advanced users can even use formulas in areas of the application outside of report cells: filters, sorts, groups, and custom columns can all be controlled through formulas in Exago BI. So, if they want to, users can sort with a formula that calculates the blast force of each super power, then group by it, or filter by it, or add it as a custom column on the report. The possibilities go to infinity (and beyond).


Most spreadsheet users are familiar with linking conceptually but will need a primer on how it works in embedded reporting.

Fortunately, linking in Exago BI is made simple by the user-friendly Linked Report interface. All users have to do is click the cell where they would like to create the link or drill down, open the linking tool from the tool bar, then choose a report or field to link to the field in the highlighted cell. That’s it!

Users can even link an ad hoc report to a chart, which in turn links to another report. It’s kind of like report Inception except it’s less dangerous to go multiple levels deep.


Inter-Report Linking and Drilldowns

An example of inter-report linking and drilldown capabilities in Exago BI.


Users should look at these differences not as scary, but exciting! It may seem weird to use the word “love” when discussing a reporting tool, but when users realize they’re skipping steps and jumping right to insights, the word won’t seem weird at all. (Exago BI users say it all time).

I hope this article eases the transition and even converts some spreadsheet diehards who need to escape spreadsheet Hell but can’t let go. Because anyone who can slog their way through a spreadsheet can become a reporting superhero in no time.

Happy reporting!

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