Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Thoughts on Cross Filtering in Power BI

It’s amazing how much of an influence your upbringing can have on you and your preferences. I was the youngest in my family for almost 10 years (till my brother came along) and not to say, growing up, I was very much pampered by my mom. However, my dad was more of a proponent of what I call tough love and back in those days, it was still legal to spank your child to set him straight. (Sometimes, I even feel like my father was the one who coined the proverb – Spare the rod and spoil the child). Looking back now, I feel those were the moments that really formed my character and helped me reach where I am, and I am really thankful to God almighty for giving me the perfect family. I know some of you might be nodding your head in agreement with me reading this post, while a lot of you might be getting really angry at what you are reading. This is perfectly understandable, and it’s ok, because we live in a free country, right? You might also be wondering the reason of such a lengthy introduction to my blog. Well, the reason is that today’s post is kind of tough love as I am criticizing (constructively) the way Cross Filtering works in Power BI, and also providing an example of how I think cross filtering should work in an efficient BI tool by showing Tableau as an example.

My thoughts on cross filtering in Power BI

Action Item – Please do it

For those who don’t have time to read this post, I would please request two things:-

1) Please vote for this issue (link given below) and tell others to also do it

2) If you are reading this before 12 PM PST Oct 2, 2015, please take the below survey which will give the feedback directly to the Microsoft Power BI research team (and if you are in the US, you might win a $50 Amazon gift card also). Make sure that you mention “making cross-filtering more intuitive” and “ability to hold selections on more than one chart for cross-filtering” as two points for this question in the survey– “What would make Power BI Desktop a better experience for you?

Please please please do it Smile

How Cross Filtering in Power BI works

Before I start this post, I have to say that I am one of the biggest fans of Power BI, and I have never been as optimistic about a Microsoft BI product as I am right now. (and it’s not just me being a fan boy, the most recent Forrester Wave report shows Microsoft leading the BI pack)

Forrester Wave BI report

The Power BI team is also one of the most responsive teams and you can regularly see the product managers as well as the product team members interacting with the general community on twitter and the Power BI community. But they don’t have an infinite number of resources and time, and hence will be making changes to the product based on priority, and votes are one way we can help the team prioritize the feature requests. The more the votes, the higher the priority and the faster we can get this feature implemented by the product team and this is where I really need all of you to pitch in. Let’s start by taking a look at how cross filtering in Power BI works today:-

Let’s say I have 3 charts – bar chart for sales by business lines, bar chart for sales by country and a bubble chart which shows some KPIs by countries.

Power BI dashboard

You can click on any chart and see the rest of the charts refresh for it. For eg, I can click on Nutrition business line and see the other charts refresh for it. However, there are a couple of things I can not do. For eg

1) I want to see the bubble chart for business line – Nutrition and country – Japan. Normally you would expect to click on Nutrition in the first chart, and Japan in the bottom chart to see the cross-filtered bubble chart. However, Power BI currently does not allow us hold selections on multiple charts. The workaround is to add slicers or filters for the needed fields, however it will break the flow when I am trying to find insights from my dashboard.

1 Power BI not able to hold multiple selections

2) I want to see where a particular country is in the bubble chart along with the rest of the countries, so I can assess it’s performance with respect to the other countries. For eg, when I click on Japan in the bottom bar chart, I want Japan to be highlighted in the bubble chart. Right now, you can see from the above image, that when I click on a particular country, only that country appears in the bubble chart because it is filtered. What we need is an option to specify whether we need a chart to be filtered or in this case, highlighted.

3) Cross-filtering during drill downs is the most counter-intuitive feature for me. I had raised this issue in 2013 for Power View and despite getting a lot of votes for the connect issue, the issue is still active. For eg, let’s say the bottom chart shows the sales by Region which can be drilled down into countries. When I drill down into the Greater China region (which only has 3 countries), I expect the top chart to cross filter for Greater China region, which it doesn’t. But if I manually select all the countries, it will cross-filter the top chart appropriately. So in a way, I can take a screenshot of the exact same report showing 2 different data points – which would be very confusing for end users. What we need is for the cross-filtering to work intuitively when we are drilling down.

2 Cross-filtering during Drill down is counter-intuitive

And looks like I am not the only one as I can see 4 comments in the last month on this.

Comment from Microsoft Connect

Comment from Power BI Community

How I feel Cross Filtering should work

I didn’t want to sound pompous by saying this is how it should work; everyone has their own ideas and most of the times, no-one is wrong. But this is why it is important for a BI tool to give options to the end user, so that they can manage the options and choose to use it the way they like. That said, let’s take a look at another popular BI tool – Tableau and see how it handles the above scenarios.

1) Note how the entire report cross-filters as I keep on holding multiple selections.

3 Tableau cross filtering

This experience is very important as I can see what are the top countries for each business line, and then I can also choose a particular country and then see the information for the selected country and business line to analyze in detail.

2) Also note how the country in the bubble chart gets highlighted, when I click on a country in the bar chart. As the number of bubbles increases, it is difficult to see where the selected bubble is unless we have a highlighting feature. The reason why highlighting is important is because it will help us identify patterns by comparing with the rest of the categories.

3) As far as the drill down is concerned, it is not that straight forward in Tableau, but we have options that will help us achieve the end result as I have shown below. You can see that when I click on a particular product category, it drills into the subcategory and all the other charts (the bar chart on the right and the table under it) are also getting filtered appropriately.

5 Tableau drill down

In reality, they are 2 different dashboard sheets, and clicking on the first sheet takes us to the second sheet with the drill down parameters intact (just like with SSRS). But an end user will not be able to get this difference and at the same time achieve the functionality.


It’s amazing how much ground has been covered in Power BI ever since the release, and there have been some really great decisions (like the ability to add custom visualizations - you just have to look at some of the contest entries to see some really great dataviz) as well as features (44 new features in the last monthly release!!!). For all that we know, the team might have already made this change in their next monthly release, or maybe it is still not in the priority list because enough customers do not want this. Either ways, I just wanted to put this out in case you also think the same way, and if yes, make your voice heard in the Survey. Now would be a good time to scroll up to the Action Item part! Smile


As I mentioned before, Power BI versions change rapidly and there are a lot of new features coming in monthly. So it is important to check your version and see if there are any changes. The version at the time of writing this blog is given below-