Tableau is a powerful piece of desktop software that lets you build visualizations using a drag and drop interface. It lets you import many kinds of numeric or categorical data and produce a range of graphics with great interactivity. Combining multiple data sources in one visualization is also possible. If you have access to Tableau server, you can automate refreshes of your data; Tableau Public allows you to publish for free if user/data privacy is not a concern (it also has a gallery that can inspire you). University instructors and students can use the authoring client for free!
Learning the basics
The easiest way to learn Tableau is to sign up for a free trial and play around with their Superstore dataset. The company's short video tutorials are excellent ways to learn on your own, step-by-step.
Tableau Starter Kits (videos)
It helps immensely to have your data formatted correctly before bringing it into Tableau. This short guide shows a few basic steps you can take to get ready for import.
Choose the type of data you have from this pop-up menu. It can be a file on your computer, or a file/database on a server.
Your data points will be grouped into dimensions and measures. Dimensions are categories of things; measures are counts of things in those categories. You drag and drop them onto columns or rows as need to build the view you want. The Show Me menu at the top right lets you change chart type, and recommends types based on your data.
Formatting | Video
While Tableau's default displays usually work well, it is worth your time to further format your visualization. Time spent adjusting screen elements to focus the user's attention, or to avoid overwhelming the user, is usually time well spent. Options to adjust include fonts, shading, alignment, borders, and graph lines. Color and size are particularly important to get right. You can format elements using the Marks card or the Formatting menu.
CubeHelix, adapted by research scientist James Davenport
Let your users customize their report! Here is an example of how Tableau lets you drill down to the specific elements you need:
The main options you have as an author to add interactivity:
Getting help when you’re stuck
If your recipients have this app on their computer, they can download your viz, then view and interact with it. It’s like Acrobat Reader for viewing PDFs.
You can create a free account on the company’s website, then post visualizations you create. The downside is that you cannot force the user to authenticate, so any private or sensitive data you post is available to anyone.
Enterprise & Data Management & Reporting (EDMR) maintain a server for the campus.
Dashboards let you combine multiple metrics, or alternate views of the same metric, in one screen. This can be much more effective than having your user shuttle between tabs, and serve to focus attention on the most important data. The example below is from The Big Book of Dashboards shows how the authors presented different data points about course enrollment, at the course level and in the aggregate.
by Steve Wexler, Jeffrey Shaffer, Andy Cotgreave
Companion website with packaged workbooks
Combining data sources
The ability to combine different data sources can be key, especially when you are dealing with discrete files rather than a database. You can use Unions to combine multiple tabs from a spreadsheet into one file to then visualize; or use Joins to combine tables (from the same database or different databases); or use Blends when a) you want to combine data from two databases that do not support cross-database joins and b) your data is at different levels of detail.
Calculations | Video
The short video to the right shows how you can create new metrics from your original data source, or perform computations on your data. Calcs extend your ability to analyze your data. Potential applications from the help guide above include:
- To segment data
- To convert the data type of a field, e.g., converting a string to a date.
- To aggregate data
- To filter results
- To calculate ratios
Connecting to external data sources
Tableau allows you to connect directly to remote data sources. This can be a time saver, eliminating the need to export data from that source and then import it into Tableau, plus it makes it easier to update your visualization from this source later (manually or via a scheduled server refresh). The example to the right is how it looks when setting up a connection from your authoring client to Google Analytics.
A common frustration is that you create a useful and pleasing visualization, only to see it take forever to load and hear your users complain. There are many things you can do to troubleshoot this problem. An easy fix is storing your data in an extract rather than connecting live. Or reducing the number of marks you have onscreen, each of which takes time to display. Or eliminating filters, however tempting it is to include as many filters as there are data points. For more extensive issues, a performance recording is recommended. The example to the right, from Tableau training company Interworks, shows what a completed recording looks like.
Designing Efficient Workbooks: white paper by Alan Eldridge
Learning from experts
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