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Comparing Open Office, Libre Office and Microsoft Powerpoint for market research charts

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2014 by sdobney Tagged: , , ,

Charting is one of the main reporting methods for quantitative research, and most companies use Powerpoint. With Open Office and Libre Office now reaching version 4.0+ we’re discovering that Open Office is now getting good enough for productive chart production for market research.Although there are automated charting and reporting tools for market research, in practice this can produce a lot of slides and not very much insight. A large chart pack often means no-one is thinking about what the research means as a whole or trying to distill the core findings, or probing the most important elements. For this reason, many market research consultancies, still use Powerpoint to hand-craft charts to show the results and analysis, combining and drilling down into data to explain and highlight key findings.

Normally this has meant slaving away in Powerpoint, pulling data from a combination of Excel and some tab or statistical software and building a range of custom annotated charts to show and explain the data. Over the past few years, however open-source Office software (Open Office and Libre Office – two forks of the same software) has improved to the point that it can compete with Microsoft Offce in many areas.

Charting for quantitative market research, though, is a demanding use of Powerpoint, not particularly because the charts are difficult, but because there are often a lot of them, with a need to create the charts under time pressure, to a uniform standard and often with several charts on the same page – eg a small chart to explain a result on the same page as a more general chart, or two charts shown side by side for comparison.

Over the years, we’ve experimented with a wide variety of charting methods including charting in Excel instead of Powerpoint (Excel charting is smoother than Powerpoint), creating dynamic charts in Excel to allow for different filters/drill downs, copying Excel charts directly to Powerpoint, macros to take data from Excel to pre-prepared Powerpoint charts directly, copy and paste of charts from stats packages etc – all with the intent to improve speed, efficiency and accuracy. In the end, we always seem to come back to just using the same basic Powerpoint charting options, which require us working chart-by-chart through the slide-pack. Other options seemed to become too cumbersome adding too much time or complexity to a process we need to be streamlined as much as possible.

The classic problems we run into are updating an interim set of charts to the full charts, making a late weighting adjustment which changes all the numbers, needing to recolour or to highlight data from a particular competitor, changing language for an international chart set and so having to rework all the labels, having to add a specific extra bar for a new subgroup for comparison for all the charts or creating small versions of a large chart again for comparison purposes. As a result, we’re quite good at getting charts that work the way we like. Often we use copy and paste for charts and slides to ensure all the same settings, scale, colours and structures remain the same for instance.

But at times Powerpoint seems to work against us. The size of the chart often changes automatically and labels, fonts and chart areas suddenly get squeezed or resized, labels turn diagonal or disappear in part or all-together, the charts suddenly have a different length to the chart it’s supposed to be a copy of. There are tricks to turn off many of the automatic functions, but not all of them and not always. It’s still possible to get a chart that just will not behave because a label length is causing problems for instance.

So, from time to time, we keep looking at other options to see if there is something better. In the last few years this has meant looking at Open Office (free software) or it’s sibling Libre Office. These have now reached version 4.0 under the influence of Apache Foundation and IBM and Oracle along the way.

Our past experience with older versions has been that they can be adequate for simpler tasks, but in a productivity environment they’ve always been let down by some maddingly niggly geekiness under the hood. For version 4.0 it appears that much of this has been ironed out. To carry out this test we did try both Libre Office and Open Office, but the charting process for the two is pretty much the same and we ended up focusing on Open Office because it seemed to be faster – speed is important when opening, editing and saving charts.

The starting place was to take an existing Powerpoint presentation and open it with Open Office. For the charts we were testing, this was seemless and the charts looked the same in Open Office as in Microsoft – there were no niggling format or word-wrap problems that we could see and backgrounds, colours, images seemed fine.

So task two was to try editing one of the old charts so we could start to use it as a template through the presentation. Here Open Office plays a little smart – the chart opens in Microsoft Graph as a Microsoft format graphic. This wasn’t what we wanted as we’d still have all the Powerpoint issues we’d normally face.

So instead it meant starting a new chart from scratch in Open Office. Charting n Open Office is similar to Microsoft, but to begin with there is a need to find all the format and menu options and understand where to find things like colours, or how to set the font-sizes correctly, so a level of learning to navigate is necessary, but after 30 minutes or so it should be reasonably comfortable.

Open Office offers pretty much the same chart types as Powerpoint and like Powerpoint charting starts a chart in a default format that we have to modify to set the house style – eg removing grid lines, hiding unnecessary scales, adding labels etc. It’s realitively straightforward, though at times Open Office seems to offer too many options – who wants kerning on a chart? The charts, like Powerpoint, are objects you have to double click into to be able to edit and this was a key area that seemed faster on Open Office than Libre Office.

Getting started is then, like Powerpoint, a question of building the datatable and then setting the chart options, right clicking on say the axis to have options to format it. This was smoother than in previous versions of Open Office and at times easier than Powerpoint so it felt that we could build the charts in a productive fashion and get them to the same standard as we would expect to product in Powerpoint.

However, there are still some grumbles – not show stoppers – but features that really help improve productivity in Powerpoint. The first grumble was on the colours. Outside charting, colours can be chosen from a grid palette, but inside the charting options, colours had to be chosen from a list. All the colours have a name which is useful, but often (eg because the company bar has to be set to have a different colour to the other bars in a chart) this involved scrolling up and down looking for the colour and trying to remember which colour we were using since there seemed to be no particular order in the list, and the current colour didn’t always seem to be marked.

In Powerpoint (and more particularly Excel), the colour of elements on the chart can be set from the drawing or format toolbars without having to go into the ‘Format’ option all the time. When there is a bulk set of changes across the charts (eg change the colour of the company bar to orange on every chart) this can be a real time saver as it means fewer clicks and allows for one-click default actions. The same principle works for formating fonts without having to pick the text, open it’s format option, click font, close and then do the next one – simply click the text, then click the font on the main toolbar.

The second grumble was over the datasheet. Powerpoint has upgraded it’s datasheet so it is more like Excel as the old one was relatively inflexible. Unfortunately the datasheet in Open Office is even more inflexible than the old Powerpoint one. For those of use with glasses, it’s small (I couldn’t see a way of increasing its size), but it doesn’t expand automatically – so to add an extra column to a full sheet, you have to click a button. Not too hard, but when data is being copied from some calculations in Excel it can be frustrating that the column of numbers that have just been typed didn’t appear because the extra column wasn’t added automatically.

The datasheet itself also seems to lack functionality – a common task with data is to reorder with an automatic sort if possible, but if not, then cutting and pasting data to reorder. Cutting and pasting from one row to a duplicate didn’t seem to work, so reordering meant creating a blank row and then retyping – not very efficient. And a starting grumble was that when entering data, it wasn’t possible to set the number format on the datasheet – eg for percentages. Instead, on the chart a label had to be added, then the label formatted, and it would translate back to the datasheet. Again just a niggly detail, but not a show stopper.

The main problem we have with Powerpoint is all the autoresizing. In Open Office, the Powerpoint type problems disappeared, but left other issues in their place. A classic issue is how the chart handles a long label. Powerpoint will break the label over two lines or try turning it diagonal, or in the worst case remove all the labels and we would have to stretch and unstretch the chart area, change the font size to see if we could get the label to reappear. Open Office seemed to leave the label on one line but then rescale the whole of the chart – shrinking it horizontally to fit so the text looks squashed, but worse so the chart itself seemed to change scale.

Where we have charts side-by-side on a page, it’s important that both have the same dimensions – a bar of 25% is the same on the two charts. Unfortunately auto-rescaling makes the bar longer on one chart than the other. Powerpoint can do this as well, to which the solution is ‘format picture’ and force the scaling to 100%. It wasn’t apparent if this was possible with Open Office. And is also wasn’t clear how to force a line to break across two or more lines (and thinking about it, changing the font size for one label point would be another option).

Overall though, quibbles aside, Open Office was able to produce the charts we wanted to the standards required and to do it productively. It was quick to use and most of the options are now logically laid out so we didn’t take too long to find a option we needed and even updating the data with new numbers was no different in time to Powerpoint and the option to export as .pdf was a valuable extra. With more of a mixed pool of machines and devices including Linux, Mac and PCs, it could be that Open Office is now good enough to be worth the switch from Microsoft.

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