If you are in a hurry to learn Power BI or don’t have much time to devote to it, we’ll explain where you should focus your time and some general advice on pitfalls to avoid. Power BI can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. The basic functions of Power BI use a drag and drop interface to create visualizations, while there are professional developer level features that make the platform highly extensible.
Here are our tips to help you learn Power BI as efficiently and as quickly as possible!
Table of Contents
1.) Embrace the Pareto 80/20 Principle
When you’re just starting out with Power BI, your goal should not be to learn what every feature and every button does. There are hundreds of them, and it would not be an efficient use of time. Focus on the 20% of skills that will get you 80% of the way towards building the report or dashboard that you want.
Fill in the rest with Google or YouTube as needed. Over time, you will pick up skills along the way and have fewer and fewer reasons to look things up.
2.) Start with a Process You Understand
The best way to learn any new tool is by using it. Power BI is no different. We recommend picking a process or dataset that you are already familiar with at work, import it into Power BI and start trying to re-create a report out of it.
If you start trying to re-create a process with Power BI that you’re not familiar with you make your job extra difficult. You not only have to learn a new tool, but you have to learn what a foreign process does or looks like. Even professional Power BI and data consultants will struggle to create a process that’s not familiar to them.
3.) Don’t Rely on Training or Demo Datasets
When you’re learning Power BI for the first time you don’t know what you don’t know. A lot of training courses will provide demo data that’s purpose built to be clean and easy to work with to introduce you to a specific concept. Unfortunately, the world is rarely that clean and organized.
Relying only on curated datasets will keep you from learning how to think through data challenges. Often times the biggest learning curve isn’t knowing which button to push in Power BI, but knowing when the right time to push it is.
4.) Start with Excel Files and Import Mode
Many larger organizations will have data saved off in databases, data warehouses, or their ERP. Power BI probably has a connector that lets you bring data in from these sources, but we would refrain from doing so at first. It’s an incredibly useful feature, but depending on how you connect to data may limit the number of features available for you to work with.
Importing an Excel or .csv file into Power BI is one of the easiest, most common, and most versatile ways to start building reports in Power BI.
5.) Learn Power Query First
After you import data into Power BI, you’ll use Power Query to transform it, clean it, and prep it to put into a report. It’s estimated that data professionals can spend 50% – 80% of their time prepping data. It varies by discipline, but it’s a core component of business intelligence and working with Power BI.
Power Query was first introduced in Excel 2010 and has since evolved. It’s available in Excel, Power BI, and several other Microsoft products. Being familiar with Power Query is a skillset that will almost immediately widen your capabilities of working with data.
A few tips to use Power Query Efficiently:
- When In Doubt Right Click a Column Header – The most common tasks in Power Query are available by right clicking on a header of your data. It’s the fastest way to perform many of the functions in Power Query.
- Get all Data into a Tabular Format – When working with Power BI and other data visualization tools they work best when data is in one big continuous table. If you’re data isn’t that way, it’s a good starting point to get it there.
- Leverage Columns from Example – This is a feature that lets you type an example of what you want data to look like in a new column. Power BI will then automatically generate the Power Query M code for you.
Professional Power BI developers will say that you should learn Power Query M but it’s very time consuming to learn and the most common Power BI functions can be performed without any coding at all.
6.) Learn DAX Formulas Later
DAX is the query language used to write formulas in Power BI. At surface level it’s pretty easy to write basic formulas, but quickly gets very complicated. One of the biggest drawbacks of Power BI isn’t necessarily the syntax of writing DAX formulas but the number of times that Power BI requires you to use it for things that are fairly common like calculating running totals or YTD amounts.
Luckily there are a couple of features you should look into that limit the amount of DAX you need to know to get started.
- Quick Measures – Mini templates that let you drag and drop fields into that will auto-generate DAX formulas.
- Power BI Copilot – AI powered by ChatGPT that lets you describe a formula and Power BI writes it for you
Lean on the tools that are available within Power BI, you’ll quickly notice that there are a handful of formulas that get used repeatedly that are worth investing time into learning.
When combining these three DAX formulas you should get pretty far.
7.) Embrace ChatGPT as a Reference
ChatGPT is an incredibly powerful AI tool. It lets you type commands and questions in using regular English and it will in many cases output a helpful response. ChatGPT can write Power Query M, along with DAX Formulas along with explaining how to use them.
You can even copy and paste code that gives you errors and ChatGPT will fix it for you and explain what the error was. It’s not 100% accurate all of the time, but it’s generally very good and can be a huge help when getting started.
8.) Copy Dashboard Designs from Others
After prepping and blending your data, the next step is to present it in a format that looks pleasing to the eye. This part of dashboard development is an intersection of art and science. Some general tips include:
- Use white space between visuals
- Mimick your company’s color pallette
- Don’t try to fit too many visuals on a screen at one time
- Copy dashboards from others
Websites like Dribbble.com have thousands of dashboard ideas you can search and review in their inspiration section.
Here are some more great tips from a professional Power BI Designer:
YouTube is another great design resource for Power BI to get some new ideas and best practices for making your dashboards look better. Our recommendation is to be aware of design and the importance of making a dashboard look good will help people take it more seriously, but it’s really a phase 2 part of the processes. If your information is bad or your dashboard doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how good it looks.
9.) Beware of the Professional Power BI Developer
Developers want to develop, and they will find reasons to do so. They will write DAX formulas that get the job done, contain several named parameters and include annotated code. The reality is that while it’s not always possible, in many cases there are simpler solutions that maybe aren’t as optimized or as query efficient but will be much simpler to implement and manage over time.
If you look at threads on Reddit or other online forums it’s common practice to recommend people learn SQL, Power Query, and DAX when starting out with Power BI. They’re useful skills to have but take a considerable amount of time to learn.
10.) Have a Working Knowledge of Databases and/or Excel
In the spirit of learning Power BI with the intent to start applying the knowledge and using it as quickly as possible, we would focus on having a basic to intermediate understanding of the system that’s producing the data that you’re importing into Power BI.
The two most common data sources are Excel files and database connections.
Knowing how both work is a good first step. A lot of processes fail when basing them off of Excel files when the Excel files are created or edited by others instead of using data directly from a source system. Power BI applies a repeatable process that’s dependent on starting from the same point each time.
When working with databases, it can be extremely useful to know some SQL. SQL is the query language for most databases, and you can make changes or limit the amount of data coming into Power BI which will make development much faster.
Fundamentals are More Important than the Tool
Power BI is an incredibly useful tool, it’s well designed and widely used across thousands of companies of all sizes. As you’re learning Power BI, we urge you to not get too laser focused on a single platform. It’s easy to dive deep into Power BI and forget that there are hundreds of alternative solutions, and many more companies that don’t use Power BI than those who do.
As you’re learning try to understand the why and with practice, you’ll develop a better feel for which data transformations need to occur at which point. Skills like understanding database structures, schemas, and SQL are more universal and have a wider application base than only knowing Power BI.
We’re not saying this to discourage you from learning Power BI. You absolutely should, it’s a great tool and many people have made entire careers based around it.
By understanding data fundamentals, you will not only be better at creating Power BI dashboards, but you will future proof yourself. There could be a new tool comes out that people start using more than Power BI or you may have to switch jobs at some point to a company that leverages a different platform.