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Power BI Desktop update for May 2021
Part five of a six-part series of blogs

May's update to Power BI Desktop is a big one, encompassing new ways of viewing models, tables and fields, a new text box, smart narratives (to explain data) and a new anomaly detection feature (to explain exceptions).

  1. Power BI Desktop update for May 2021
  2. A new model view
  3. Standardised table and field lists across Power BI views
  4. New text boxes
  5. Smart Narratives (this blog)
  6. Automatic detection of anomalies

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Posted by Andy Brown on 19 May 2021

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Smart Narratives

You can turn any visual into a smart narrative text box which attempts to explain the underlying data:

A smart narrative

A smart narrative attempting to explain a column chart.

On this page I'll explain the background to smart narratives, how they work and why I don't like them!

Setting the scene ...

Microsoft have invested a huge amount of money over the years in developing the Q&A visual, the theory underlying which is that you can type in any natural language question you like about your data.  For example:

Q&A visual example

A Q&A visual being used to find the town with the highest purchase price in the London region.

 

Rather than relying on you to ask the right question, a Smart Narrative visual now tries to give you the answer!

Creating a Smart Narrative

Here's how smart narratives work.  Suppose you have a visual which you want to interpret:

A column chart

A column chart of sales by region - but what is it trying to tell me?

 

With the visual selected, click on the Smart Narrative icon: 

The Smart Narrative visual

The icon for the Smart Narrative visual.

 

Your visual transforms itself into a text box:

A smart narrative

Computer-generated text to help you to understand your chart.

You can hover over any statistic to see a clickable link:

Link for value

Click where you see the hand icon to see the underlying formula.

 

You can now store this as a Value for the text box:

Storing a value

See the separate page in this blog for what text box Values are and how to create and edit them.

My objections to Smart Narratives

I have one small objection to smart narratives and two large ones.  The small one is that they seem to be supported by very few visuals.  In my admittedly limited testing, all too often I got either this:

No summarisations found

You get this if you don't have a visual selected, for example.

Or this:

A blank smart narrative

Most visuals seem to generate a blank text box (this one was the result of trying to create a smart visual for a humble pie chart).

My larger objections are that I think smart narratives are trying to do something impossible, and going about it the wrong way.  Starting with the first of these, I think we are decades away from the situation where a computer can add any useful commentary to a visual.

Reader beware: perhaps I'm just over-confident about my ability to interpret tables of data and charts.  However, I do have one edge over a computer: I understood the context behind the data, and what it actually means!

The other objection is that a Smart Narrative isn't a visual!

Smart narrative visual icon

Clicking on this icon doesn't create a visual - it destroys one, turning a respectable visual into a humble text box.

 

What I would like to see instead is a new icon to generate a smart narrative for a visual:

New icon

Where the new icon could go.

 

Clicking on this could create a new text box containing the smart narrative to sit alongside the initial visual:

Two visuals side by side

Much better: you can see the original visual and the text explaining it.

Maybe I should apply for a job in Microsoft product design?  If you're reading this, Microsoft guru, remember that I love most things in Power BI, and that I'd welcome an acknowledgment if you use this idea! 

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