Posted on

Custom sort orders in Power BI

Custom sort orders in Power BI

Ah, the smell of coffee and nicely sorted charts in the morning is something everyone can enjoy. Sorting your data in Power BI is easy at first sight but it doesn’t always give you the results you first expect, especially with ordinal data. In this post, we zoom into sorting and some of its caveats.

Power BI offers some readily available functionality to sort your charts ad hoc. Simply select the More Options icon in your chart, go to Sort by and select the field on which you want to sort. Easy!

Fig. 1: Sort your graphs via the Sort by option. Here you will also find options to sort ascending or descending.

This works fine for sorting values numerically or alphabetically, such as for nominal values. Things get a little bit trickier when you are working with ordinal values such as the day of the week. By just sorting your chart on the day of the week, you will end up with Friday, Monday, Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, Tuesday, Wednesday.

Nominal data: data in which the variables have no natural order. Examples are binary data (true / false) or names (Dustin, Will, Lucas, Johnathan).

Ordinal data: data in which the variables have natural, ordered categories. Examples include Months (Jan, Feb, Mar, etc.) or questionnaire scores (poor, reasonable, good, or excellent).

Fig. 2: The left column chart has the Weekday names in the Axis bucket, while the right one has Weekday number on the Axis.

As an alternative you can replace the names of the weekdays with the weekday numbers. Creating such a column can be done in your workbook using the following DAX function:

Day of Week Number = WEEKDAY(Date[Date],2)

Mondays are now the first day of the week, the standard in most European countries. Change the last argument of the WEEKDAY function to have Sunday or Saturday as the start of the week. Updating your chart with this newly created column allows you to show the days in the correct order. However, we’ve now lost our labels.

Using Sort by Column

We can fix this problem by sorting our column, based on another column. We therefore must indicate on which column to sort our data. In the Report view in Power BI Desktop, select the column you want sorted. Next, go to Column tools and find the “Sort by column” options. Select the column containing the correct order, and that’s it. (Note: this option is also available in the Data and Model view, it works exactly the same way)

Fig. 3: After selecting your column in the Fields pane, you will see the Column tools tab appear in the Ribbon.

This sort order is used in all visuals whether it’s a bar chart, table or slicer. You may run into visuals that overrule sorting of the data, so keep that in mind when working with some custom visuals.

Fig. 4: The chart has been sorted in the way we want it: it shows the names of the day in chronological order

You can do this trick on any column in your data, even if you’ve created that column yourself using DAX. Do make sure that every value in the column you want sorted, has only 1 corresponding value on which to sort. Power BI will not be able to sort your weekdays if Monday sometimes has number 1 and other times number 2. In other words, both columns must have the same cardinality.

Fig. 5: Make sure that the column on which you base you sorting has the same cardinality as the column to be sorted, or Power BI will not be able to figure the correct order out!

In order to use Sort by Column, both columns must be in the same table. If you have two tables with a relationship between them, it will not be possible to sort a column based on a column in the other table. You would have to merge the two tables to resolve this. Remember to only keep relevant columns after merging as your table size can grow substantially, degrading performance.

Fig. 6: Unfortunately, we can’t perform the sorting based on column from other tables.

Side effects on calculations

Unwanted side effects can occur when using DAX expressions on columns that are being sorted by another column. What makes matters worse is that there is not easy way to see which columns are being sorted on others. Take the following example: we want to calculate the percentage of the total sales for each month. We can do this by creating the following measure:

Monthly % of Year= 
DIVIDE (SUM(Sales[Sales]),
        ALL(Sales[Month Name])))

In the two tables below, we see what happens to our result as soon as we sort the Month Name column on the Month Number:

Fig. 7: Left: The Month Name column is sorted on itself. We see that our DAX statement correctly calculates the fraction of yearly sales that happened that month. Right: After sorting the Month Name by the Month Number, our DAX statement divides the monthly sales by itself. Surely this is not what we wanted!

All of our fractions are 100% after using Sort by Column! This happens because the SUMMARIZECOLUMNS function groups the data using both the Month Name and Month Number column. We must therefore make sure to clear both involved columns using the ALL function in our measurement.

Monthly % of Year= 
DIVIDE (SUM(Sales[Sales]),
        ALL(Sales[Month Name],Sales[Month Number])))

The table below show the results that we expected. The monthly sales are now correctly divided by the total sales of the year.

Fig. 8: By making sure that both column filters are cleared in our DAX statement, we now have the expected results

In short: sorting categories in a chart numerically or alphabetically can quickly be done using the More Options menu in your visual. Sorting a column based on another one is done using the Sort by Column option but both columns must have the same cardinality. Finally, keep in mind that your measures may show unexpected behaviour when you’ve sorted on another column.