How to Make the Most Out of Tableau

By BrainStation June 22, 2018

When it comes to data analysis and visualization, few tools can compare to the Tableau platform. In fact, it is often called “the grand master of data visualization software.” Given all that’s possible with Tableau, how do you make the most of it?

For insight into common best practices and approaches, we spoke with Dr. Jeremy Gray, BrainStation’s Lead Educator for Data Science. Here are seven tips and tricks.

Concentrate on Telling a Story

Don’t dash straight to your dashboard. First, spend some time with the data and think about what, exactly, you’re trying to communicate.

“Tableau is super powerful, but you need to make sure that you understand your data first,” Dr. Gray said. “Make sure you know what the question is you’re trying to answer using your dashboard and visualization. Make sure you understand the range your data covers.”

Ultimately, your goal is to use Tableau to tell a story – and it’s hard to tell a story if you don’t know what your story is about.

“Know what you’re trying to do and put together a story from your data,” Dr. Gray said. “Make sure you know whether you’re trying to drill down in a specific analysis, whether you’re trying to talk about what a statistical test tells you about your customers, or whether you’re trying to show differences or clusters within your data.

“Make sure you know that, and then you can use a Tableau story to drive a narrative and make sure you get the most out of your data.”

Know Your Audience

Simply put, some of us have a mind for numbers and crave detail, while others would simply prefer a high-level overview.

Once you know whom you’re speaking to, Tableau can help you produce something perfectly suited to your target audience.

“If you’re presenting to data scientists, you’re probably presenting a lot more detail and a lot more math compared to if you’re presenting to an executive crowd,” Dr. Gray pointed out.

Borrow From the Best

There are plenty of beautiful Tableau dashboards already out there in the world. So why not gather inspiration from the best?

Tableau’s website posts stunning data visualizations from across the web on an almost daily basis in its gallery. Every dashboard could contain a creative idea that you simply never would have thought of.

“Obviously, don’t completely copy them,” Dr. Gray warned. “But it’s a great way to see what you can do with Tableau, how you can get your data in the same format, and to see what ground-breaking dashboards look like.”

Play With Color

Dr. Gray points out that one of the best features of Tableau is its wide range of built-in color schemes and palettes. Tableau even lets users create a custom color palette to ensure your dashboard aligns tidily with your company’s brand.

Tableau also has built-in colorblind capabilities, which will ensure that even the eight percent of men who have color-vision deficiency won’t miss any details of your dashboard.

Still, you don’t want to overdo it and turn your visualization into a rainbow eyesore (although a splash of color could really help your dashboard pop).

“You don’t want it to look like a rave party,” Dr. Gray recommended.

If you’re still unsure, review Tableau’s visual best practices.

Blend In

Most often, when you’re combining data from different databases that you want to analyze together in a single sheet, you’ll use cross-database joins. But in some situations, it’s better to become comfortable using the data blending method.

The technique is useful if you’re combining data from different databases that won’t support the use of cross-database joins, if there’s a disparity in the level of detail in the two data sets, if the data needs cleaning, or if you simply have lots of data.

If you’re not sure how to do this, here is a step-by-step guide.

Make Your Data Dance

If you want to animate your visualization, Tableau’s Pages shelf will help you create an eye-catching design.

The Pages shelf is especially useful when you have a large amount of data you want to present in an attractive way. The shelf can be used for any field, but a common use is to place a date field there, which will then allow you to animate changes in your data over time.

Ultimately, it’s a tool that will help you scan through your data almost like a flipbook.

Remember That Simplicity is Smart

When it comes to communicating your key performance indicators, data scientists and analysts use a rather cheeky term: Big A** Numbers.

The idea is that rather than presenting an entire graph, you use just one value or statistic that tells the story – and make sure that number is big, bold, and impossible to miss.

It’s also important to get comfortable with creating filters in Tableau, which will allow your users to get interactive with your dashboard and dig deeper into your data. Tableau offers plenty of advice to customize and configure your filters. Spotlighting is another technique that can help you emphasize certain key pieces of data.

Overall, however, the last thing you want is a cluttered dashboard.

“In general, you should imagine your printer is running out of ink,” Dr. Gray advised. “The idea is to use the least amount of ink on the page that tells the most amount of story.”


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