Q&A: With Microsoft Office Visio 2007, Every Picture Tells a Richer Story

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 19, 2006 – While a picture may be worth a thousand words, having the right pieces of data associated with that picture can be invaluable to IT professionals and business managers in making better-informed decisions.

Currently in beta testing and scheduled for release to business customers later this year as part of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, Visio 2007 includes a range of new features that give people greater control over how they analyze and share information visually.

That notion of improved business insight has strongly guided the development of Microsoft Office Visio 2007, the company’s diagramming and data visualization software. Currently in beta testing and scheduled for release to business customers later this year as part of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, Visio 2007 includes a range of new features that give people greater control over how they analyze and share information visually.

Today at the Interop New York 2006 information technology exposition and conference, Microsoft demonstrated how Visio 2007 can help organizations render complex information in simple-to-understand graphics. PressPass asked Richard Wolf, general manager of the Office Graphics Division at Microsoft, to explain the thinking behind the new features.

PressPass: How have the graphics and diagramming needs of IT and business professionals evolved since the initial release of Microsoft Office Visio six years ago?

Wolf: I’ve observed two key trends from talking with our customers and partners. One is that the task of managing technology systems in the business world has grown even more complex as organizations deal with new issues around IT governance, compliance with new regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, as well as heightened security and privacy concerns. The other is a growing desire to give employees more direct access to information, and provide it in a format that can be easily understood by everyone in the organization without requiring an analyst or expert to interpret the data. Both these trends increase the customer demand for software that lets people portray highly complex systems and related data in a visual format, such as a diagram, which tends to make the data much more understandable and results in better decision-making. Similarly, we’ve also seen that roughly 70 percent of the complementary software applications built by our Visio partners are focused in one way or another on connecting Visio diagrams with related data.

PressPass: In light of these trends, what makes the release of Microsoft Office Visio 2007 so compelling?

Wolf: The driving objective behind this release of Office Visio has been to provide greater opportunities for IT and business customers to use diagrams to apply a rich, visual context to sets of data. That represents a significantly new direction for Visio, and as a result we believe that this release will have greater impact than any previous version.

In visiting hundreds of Visio customers to study how they work, and comparing notes with many of our partners, it became very clear that most Visio diagrams are actually about data. For example, take a logical network diagram that an IT pro creates to illustrate all of the machines that are connected within that organization. There are all kinds of data associated with each piece of equipment in that diagram — the operating system versions, IP addresses, which security patches have been applied and so on — that most Visio users presently store in a separate table or database. To understand what’s really going on with the network, they have to look back and forth between the diagram and the data, or else re-key data into the diagram. That’s very time-consuming and hard to understand.

We’ve responded by building a rich array of data visualization capabilities into Microsoft Office Visio 2007 that make it easier to generate graphical representations of underlying data. This release also will provide new tools to help people create better-looking diagrams from scratch.

PressPass: How does Visio 2007 align with Microsoft’s overall interoperability vision and strategy?

Wolf: The new data visualization and connection capabilities in this release reflect an unprecedented level of integration between Visio 2007 and the rest of the 2007 Microsoft Office system. We’ve designed Visio 2007 to extend Microsoft’s overall strategy of providing greater interoperability across our own products as well as partner technologies and competitive products wherever possible. This includes the built-in connections from Visio to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, Microsoft Office Excel and Microsoft Office Project. People can create a Visio diagrammatic report from within any of these programs. Visio also imports data from Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Office Access. Plus, XML-based data can be imported for use in Visio 2007. The improved integration with SharePoint Server also makes it possible to connect a SharePoint list to a Visio diagram and analyze it, then use SharePoint to distribute Visio documents as part of various workflow scenarios.

PressPass: What are the top data visualization capabilities in Visio 2007?

Wolf: We’ve created four interconnected feature sets: Data Linking, Data Refresh, Data Graphics and Pivot Diagrams.

Data Linking enables people to import data from a variety of data sources directly into a Visio diagram. The source can be Excel, SharePoint Server, SQL Server, Access, a non-Microsoft business application that is ODBC- or OLE DB-compliant, or XML data. Through the Data Connection Wizard in Visio, people can locate and import the data set into Visio 2007 and then link the data to shapes in a specific diagram by simply dragging and dropping the row of data onto that shape. Better yet, they can arrange for data to be imported automatically. In the logical network diagram example I talked about earlier, the data in the shape might be the name of a particular node in the network. If you have that same name in your Visio 2007 diagram and in your data table, you can simply specify that you would like to connect the diagram to the data. Automatically presenting the data in the context of the network diagram makes it more valuable and means lower costs and fewer errors, because there’s no need to re-key the data in order to keep it current.

With these links in place, Data Refresh enables customers to update information in a diagram from the external data source, either automatically or on demand. Whenever the data is refreshed in the associated Excel spreadsheet or Project report or SQL Server database, any changes will instantly appear in the Visio diagram. This helps ensure that employees always have the most accurate picture of the process they’re tracking, whether it’s IT system performance or sales results, as opposed to only a static picture of the data.

Visio 2007 also includes new Data Graphics capabilities to help customers more intelligently format their data, display it in easily understandable ways and match the display to their organization’s specific business logic. For example, they can use readily identifiable icons such as traffic lights or arrows to call out exceptional conditions. In the case of a logical network diagram, a server that doesn’t have the latest patches could be flagged with an icon of an exclamation point. People can also choose quantitative graphics, such as a bar representing the percentage of server uptime, or a set of stars to show which salespeople are achieving their quota, or different colors to indicate the status of a call center.

Pivot Diagrams in Visio 2007 open up unique ways to easily analyze complex data sets using a visual hierarchy that takes advantage of the other new features I’ve just described. People start by automatically generating Pivot Diagrams from data in SharePoint Server, SQL Server, Project or Excel, such as a summary of how the organization’s call centers are performing. From there, they can hone in on the details by expanding the diagram to view breakouts of the call centers by region, types of call issues being received within each center, and which issues were resolved successfully or not. Users can then apply Data Linking Data Refresh and Data Graphics to each Pivot Diagram.

PressPass: What new and expanded opportunities will the release of Visio 2007 create for Microsoft partners?

Wolf: With the work we’ve already done to ensure that nearly all types of data can easily connect into Visio 2007, our software development partners can now focus on adding their specific domain expertise to the products they build for customers. When we described these data visualization and connection capabilities to our partners at the Microsoft Office Visio Conference 2006 last January, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Also, each of the four new sets of data visualization features has an open application programming interface that partners can use to further integrate these capabilities into their software. Some of the business areas where our partners are doing this include applications for network monitoring and reporting, compliance analysis software, process improvement, sales force configuration and many others.

PressPass: What specific types of feedback have you heard from customers that are involved in beta testing of Visio 2007?

Wolf: One indicator of their excitement about this new version is that next to the 2007 Microsoft Office system as a whole, Visio has generated the second-largest number of beta code downloads. Our beta customers have given us great advice on the types of data graphics that they wanted to see and be able to use in Visio 2007, such as a greater variety of bars that could be associated with different shapes in a diagram to illustrate data such as sales by region, or profitability, or quotas. That feedback also influenced our decision to give end users a means of creating their own data graphics, such as using a company’s logo to illustrate sales performance. In addition, they’ve helped educate us about specific reporting requirements in various industries and certain usage scenarios, such as facilities management, that they want Visio 2007 to support.

PressPass: Where can customers and partners go to learn more about Visio 2007?

Wolf: People attending this week’s Interop Conference will see us demonstrate the new data visualization capabilities as well as other key usability features in this release. Customers and partners worldwide can also find all the important details about Visio 2007 on the product Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview/programs/visio/highlights.mspx. We’ve just released a new beta 2 technical refresh of the entire 2007 Office system, including Visio. This is a great chance for customers and partners to try out the product in a form that’s pretty close to final.

As part of our partner program, we are also introducing a new competency in data visualization. Visio 2007 is one of the core pillars in this new area of specialization within the IW competency area of the partner program. This competency will help our partners develop new skills around graphics and visual tools as part of becoming a certified solution provider.

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