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Notes vs. Comments: Excel changed its nomenclature – should Power BI be left behind?

by Inforiver | Sep 07, 2022 |

If you think your Power BI report supports dynamic comments, think again. What are often implemented in Power BI reports as ‘Comments’ – either through PowerApps or third-party visuals – are simply filterable notes.

But what is the difference? How does it matter?

“Most implementations of ‘Comments’ in Power BI, including those in custom visuals, are simply Notes’”

To understand the difference, we need to look at the history of notes vs. comments in the world of Excel.

Notes vs. comments – A brief history

Microsoft originally had a ‘notes’ feature in the 90s that helped users provide additional context or description. Here is a snapshot from Excel 95 showcasing the ability to insert a note.

Notes in Excel95

Excel 97 subsequently changed it to ‘Comments’, which introduced the yellow box interface that we all are familiar with. This change remained in practice for more than two decades. Here is a snapshot from Excel 2010 with the ability to insert ‘Comments’. Note how the icon resembles a typical sticky-note.

Comments in Excel 2010

Here is an image from Excel 2016, continuing that trend.

Comments in Excel 2016

However, with the introduction of Office 365, things started changing. Microsoft had realized that collaboration is going to be the future for productivity tools, especially in Office designed for the web. It introduced a new ‘threaded comments’ feature across Word, PowerPoint and Excel. This was essentially a commenting feature with a reply box, which empowered users to engage in conversations.

Threaded comment

The Excel team now had a conflict. It could not have two ‘Comment’ features. To resolve this, the Excel team renamed the pre-existing ‘comments’ feature to ‘notes’ again.

In fact, there was a period of time during when the notes feature (the sticky yellow note) was entirely dropped out of Excel web. Only in August 2021 was this fully reinstated in the browser version of Excel.

Today, you can access both Notes & Comments from the context menu in Excel. Observe the subtle difference in the icons.

Notes Comments Excel Today

Comments vs. Notes – A quick comparison

In short, notes are used to explain, annotate, or add context to data. Comments are something more that notes – in that they come with a ‘Reply’ feature, using which users can interact with each other. The differences are highlighted below.

Notes Comments Excel Overview

Notes vs. Comments in Power BI

Well, what does all this mean to Power BI?

Power BI offers comments out-of-the-box, but this is only at the report-level or visual-level. As with Office365, you can also use @mentions and engage in a conversation with other users.

Report level comments Power BI

However, you cannot do data-level commenting in Power BI. To address this, users started looking into custom implementations and third-party visuals.

In the quest to perform data-level commenting, the Power BI community overlooked the change in nomenclature that Excel experienced in 2018. As a result, the Power BI landscape today has lot of 'comments' implementations that are simply some form of 'notes' or annotations - as they do not support or facilitate user conversations.

Notes & Comments: The state of custom implementations in Power BI

There are several options to perform dynamic, filterable, data-level annotations (notes) in Power BI. You can use Power App or third-party visuals to implement this. However, they do not have a ‘reply to’ option and cannot support threaded conversations.

However, they are still referred to as comments, while in reality they are implementations of filterable, data-level notes.

Remember that to truly support commenting, today’s solution needs to satisfy these needs:

  • The users need to be able to respond to another user’s post or a comment
  • The report must know which user created each comment
  • Commenting must be threaded – essentially going beyond a single reply – thereby facilitating conversations

As Office 365 and the Excel web experiences are bound to get more popular, keeping the Power BI nomenclature in sync with Excel will avoid any potential confusion in the user base. An earlier course-correction will also save a lot of heartache down the line.

Inforiver offers both Notes & Comments

Taking a cue from Office 365, we at Inforiver decided to offer both notes & comments out-of-the-box for Power Bi reports. With Inforiver, you can deliver highly specific data-level notes – at the cell, row and column levels. Footnotes are supported too. Check out our notes interface as shown below.

Inforiver offers both both Notes and Comments

Inforiver also delivers an exhaustive Comments feature, where users can have threaded conversations as seen below. It supports row, cell and column-level comments. You can also use @mentions to grab the attention of another user, who will also receive a corresponding email notification.

Email Notification Inforiver

Both notes & comments in Inforiver are dynamic – in that they are tied to a specific data point, row or measure. Filtering the report makes the comment appear at the appropriate location – as it is always tied to the data.

But the similarities stop there. Notes & Comments in Inforiver are different in the following ways:

  1. You can respond to a Comment, but not to a note.
  2. Comments are collaborative, while notes are only used to annotate / provide additional context to data
  3. Comments can be saved to a database, while Notes reside within the Power BI pbix file and cannot be saved to a database (note that however both can be exported to, say, an Excel file)
  4. Commentary needs users to be authenticated with Office365, and hence is available only with Inforiver Enterprise. Notes are supported in both Inforiver Matrix and Enterprise.

So, which one do your Power BI reports use? Notes or comments? If you are using only Notes, and would like to explore true commenting in Power BI, try out the Enterprise Edition of Inforiver today.

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