Utilizing On Object Visuals in Power BI for Faster Development

On Object visuals represent a new way to develop dashboards in Power BI. It’s the first major overhaul of the familiar Power BI desktop interface in years. As of writing these features are available in preview only but are likely to become the default interface for Power BI in the near future.

On Object Interactions for Power BI Visuals represent a new interface that luckily can be turned off to use the classic interface for those seasoned developers

We’ll explain what On Object Visuals are, and explain how to navigate around the new Power BI interface. While it can be jarring and annoying at first, it can actually be a decent time saver after getting used to it.

Let’s jump in!

The Traditional Power BI User Interface

As a quick level set, the below screenshot shows the traditional Power BI report builder view. Visualizations are added to a canvas on the left side of the screen, with the ability to add new visuals, assign fields, and formatting options all available on a panel on the right side of the screen.

Screenshot of the traditional Power BI user interface utilizing visualization panels to add, modify, and format visuals

This has been the way that many Power BI users have interacted with Power BI Desktop for over a decade. It works, many people are used to it, but changes are coming.

On Object Interactions with Visuals in Power BI

Starting in 2023, Microsoft announced On Object Interactions in Power BI as a preview feature. They were introduced after collecting telemetry data of how users were currently using Power BI. Microsoft found that as the dashboard development landscape has changed, many people were developing reports on laptops and different screen form factors making the panel system inefficient as it takes up a significant amount of space when expanded on a laptop monitor.

Microsoft also wanted to modernize the Power BI interface to be more aligned with other Microsoft 365 product user interfaces to make it easier for people new to the platform to get started.

Note: The current interface is subject to change without notice. Microsoft is typically pretty good about making production features similar to preview features but they are known to tweak and adjust with monthly updates.

Getting Started with On Object Interactions

To use On Object Interactions, it’s important to recognize that many of the options that were available in the traditional Power BI Desktop interface still exist, but have been relocated. There are also differences in how you can add visuals.

In general, the interface is more compact and relies more heavily on right clicking and mouse interactions on the selected visual, thus the name On Object Interactions.

Adding Visuals Using Power BI On Object Interactions

To add a new visual or to format the canvas with On Object Interactions enabled, right click on the canvas and a contextual menu will appear allowing you to Add a Visual.

How to add a new visual using on object interactions in Power BI

This will create a blank visual where a chart, matrix, or graph type can be assigned. This is where it’s important to be aware of the different interface options available.

Overview of On Object Interaction Interface

The most jarring difference you will notice when On Object Interaction is enabled is the lack of a Data or Visualization panel to the right side of the screen along with a few other major changes.

  • Visual Selection has moved to the top ribbon.
  • Common formatting options and visual options are also available when clicking an icon to the side of a selected visual.
  • A Pane Switcher lets you toggle more familiar panels on and off on the right side of the screen.
Screenshot of the new on object interaction interface elements in Power BI Desktop

By placing more options directly next to a visual or on the top ribbon, the new interface allows you to do more without having to expand a panel on the right side of the screen letting you view more of your canvas at one time.

Microsoft also maintains documentation of the different features that exist at any given point in time, that are available here: Use on-object interaction with visuals in your report (preview) – Power BI | Microsoft Learn

The interface feels mostly flushed out but we’ve noticed some differences in our monthly builds of Power BI Desktop and the actual documentation which tells us that features are currently a work in progress.

How to Enable or Disable Power BI On Object Interactions

To enable On Object Interactions, navigate to File, Options and Settings, and go to the Preview Features section. There is a check box to enable On-object interactions. After selecting it, close out of Power BI Desktop and re-open it to enable the feature.

How to enable preview features in Power BI such as On Object Interactions

When Power BI opens, you will be prompted to choose whether to use the new on object interface or to stick to the class pane setup. This gives us hope that using the traditional interface will be sticking around for quite some time for people who have invested a lot of time into working with the platform.

The option screen to choose which interface style you want to work with, the pane setup or the classic panel setup

After on-object interactions are enabled, there are additional options and settings under the Report Settings view that allow you to Enable or Disable the Pane Switcher along with options to show all visualizations types. By default, Power BI may only show the most popular visualizations and make the full list less visible.

Understanding the Power BI Pane Switcher

Another dramatic shift in the way that people interact with Power BI is the Pane Switcher. This is the series of buttons that are available on the right side of the screen. Typically they are items that are less commonly used, such as the Bookmarks, Selection, and Performance Analyzer screen.

However, you can also access the Data and Format panels, albeit in a slightly different format than what seasoned Power BI developers are used to.

Example of using the Pane Switcher in Power BI to build a visual

Buttons can be added or removed from the Panel Switcher by navigating to the View Section of the Power BI Ribbon, and adjusting the Pane Switcher items that are enabled.

Screenshot of Pane Switcher options available in the Power BI Ribbon

You can also adjust these by clicking the + sign on the right side of Power BI Desktop under the panel buttons.

Additional options exist under Global Report settings to disable the pane switcher, and modify some of the buttons that are always shown on it.

Additional Pane Switcher options are available under File, Options and Settings, Report Settings

Between the new Pane Switcher and On Object interactions, there is a decent learning curve of how to interact with Power BI. New users won’t know the difference, but older experienced developers may take a while to get used to the new platform.

Should You Use On Object Interactions?

When we take a step back at the new Power BI interface, there are some changes that are appreciated. The contextual ability to modify visuals and find the most common settings can be a time saver after getting over the initial learning curve.

In the context of making it easier to develop a Power BI dashboard on a non-traditional device such as a laptop screen, or tablet, the following quote comes to mind.

Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before… Dr. Ian Malcolm : Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

– Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

It’s our view that professional dashboard developers should invest in professional grade tools to help them create dashboards and analyze data more efficiently, which generally includes a full-sized keyboard, a mouse, and a high-resolution widescreen monitor. Of course, these are not necessities, and there will be a number of developers that disagree, don’t have the resources or space for a large setup, or live the digital nomad lifestyle where portability and mobility is key.

By making the interface smaller screen and mobile friendly, it enables developers to work more efficiently with an inherently inefficient set of hardware.

That being said, if you do have a small format screen you should absolutely test out these new features. They’re much easier to use than having to expand multiple panels that shrink your canvas to the point of being unable to view it.

Conclusion

Whether an individual user likes it or not, the new interface is coming and coming fast. Microsoft has not announced when this new view will become the default but with so many new visuals coming and heavy investment into the platform we expect it sooner than later.

Our recommendation is to at least give it a try to see if it works for you, and to be familiar with it. Even if you end up turning it off there will be new users that have questions on how to navigate Power BI which you will be better suited to help them with having a familiarity with the new interface.

The new interface is designed with mobile and laptops in mind, if we were regularly developing dashboards on such a device or needed to log in to make changes while on the road we would absolutely recommend giving it a try.

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