Yesterday at the SharePoint conference I got to attend a session on using Visio Services to build dashboards in Office 365 (#SPC289). This was one of the seven different sessions that focus on Visio during the SharePoint conference, and it focused on what all you can do with Visio Services out-of-the-box (OOTB) configurations.

When we first started the session, one of the speakers stated that this was a 101 session that was intended to stretch the limits of what you can do out of the box. The session was co-presented by Chris Hopkins and AJ Briant. Chris is a Senior Consultant with the US Services, Premier ISV team at Microsoft, and AJ is a Senior Product Manager for Microsoft Visio. AJ started the session by giving an overview and Chris concluded by doing some demos.

The Business Value in Visio

Organizations turn to Visio Services for many reasons, but as discussed in this session, the primary reason for its adoption is that it is a tool that exists within the environment already and is familiar and available to most users. This is primarily because of the need to solve unique business problems without having the resources to purchase systems specific to each problem. By utilizing tools already available, organizations are able to increase their ROI of the existing product set.

Visio in Action

During the session we watched Chris build a Service Request Dashboard. This dashboard showed a diagram of servers and allowed for us to click on a server within the diagram and submit a help ticket. Whenever the server was selected, the InfoPath form on the page would be populated with the required information about the server selected. This is great because in the real world this would allow for users to be able to select items from an easily recognizable diagram or chart and then not have to manually enter information in a form. Similar things will greatly improve the accuracy of your data, as well as the overall user satisfaction in most situations.

The steps to configure this dashboard were pretty straightforward, and I have outlined them below so that you can get an idea of what you would need to do to create something similar in your environment.

  1. Create the Diagram in Visio
  2. Associate the Shapes in Visio to the Data Source (in our example a SharePoint list)
  3. Save the Visio Document as a Web Drawing in our SharePoint site
  4. Create the Dashboard Page (in our example a Web Part Page)
  5. Create the Help Desk List and Customize the Form in InfoPath (update formatting and add a connection to submit the form using a button)
  6. Add the Visio and InfoPath web parts to the page and use the Edit Web Part menu to connect them
  7. Use SharePoint Designer to add the additional connections (in our example we mapped two fields to the form. The browser supports one item, so we used SPD to add the additional field in the connection).

So in seven steps we managed to build this solution. Notice that we have also used three different tools for configuration of the solution -- InfoPath (customize the form), IE (creating pages and adding Web Parts) and SharePoint Designer (advanced web part connection configurations).

Making it Easy

Throughout the demos, AJ and Chris took time to point out some of the features inside of Visio that make this process easier. They discussed how in previous versions of Visio it was hard for users to get started because the tool wasn’t as intuitive as some of the other Office products. And this became a barrier to how often information workers could really push Visio to its limit.

In Visio 2010 they have really tried to address this and make Visio a tool that is friendlier and easier for information workers, the goal being to make faster and better diagrams available to everyone. Some of the features that they discussed include the items below. To help the readers who didn’t get to attend the conference, I have also added some links to pages that provide greater detail on the specific functions.

Looking Forward

So far this has been the most powerful session that I have seen from an information worker perspective. Being able to see how the different tools interact together to build complete, real-world solutions is what I love most about these sessions. Without writing any custom code, a practical, useful solution was demonstrated. Attendees could easily walk away from this session and apply what they learned to the unique situations in their organization.

Networking with AJ and Chris

Later in the afternoon through some networking connections, I was able to sit down and talk with both AJ and Chris and ask them some specific questions about the session and Visio in general. During the interview I asked them three questions about Visio that related specifically to information workers. Their responses were very informative and practical, so if you are looking to get started with Visio, this should help point you in the right direction.

Question 1: If I am an information worker who is just looking to get started with Visio, where should I start?

They answered this question by a simple quote: “Don’t try to boil the ocean.” Take some time to review the current organization and focus on one team or department where you are very familiar with the data. Start with this because you know the data and how it is used so you will be able to really use the most features within SharePoint.

Question 2: What are some practical examples of Visio that you have seen at different organizations?

They answered this question by listing the top four types of diagrams they see within organizations:

  1. Organization Charts
  2. Process Modeling (example: Requirements Gathering)
  3. Physical Environment Information (example: Office Moves, Inventory Tracking)
  4. Simple BI Dashboards (example: Adding Images to Shapes to Highlight Status)

Question 3: What resources are available to help me get started?

To be honest, when I asked this question I had already in mind imagined the answer that they would give me; however, I was completely wrong and pleasantly surprised by all the information that they had! They wanted to really emphasize the fact that Visio is a great tool that many people are using and that there are many templates available that can be used to get you started. There is really no reason to have to start from scratch when others have likely worked on something similar and made it available to you as a resource.

The primary way to access this content is through the new Visio website. This site has just recently launched and is the jumping point for all things Visio. On this site you can find templates to get you started, as well as software add-ins that provide full solutions that you can incorporate within your environment. On this site they also offer free training sessions where you can learn more about Visio. The training sessions are offered around every three weeks and are recorded for those who are unable to attend.

Finally, they highlighted that there were recently three books published by different MVPs and community members. I have provided links to those books below so that you can check them out to learn more:

Hopefully all of this information will help you get the information you need to explore Visio within your environment. Be sure to check out the site and to connect with the team through Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I know they would be happy to work with you to answer your questions and help you find the information that you need to get started.

I appreciated the time that they took to spend time chatting with me, proving that one of the greatest benefits of a conference like SPC11 is the ability to connect and network with the people behind the products. If you happen to be attending SPC11, I highly recommend that you catch the next session that AJ and Chris will be presenting -- Advanced BI Visualizations using Visio Services (#SPC303, Thursday 12:00- 1:15pm).

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