Before You Start: Tableau Primer

From the desk of our Tableau expert: part 1

We get all kinds of questions about Tableau, from every level of users and from IT to the business side. We asked one of our in-house Tableau gurus, Chuck Hooper, to share his answers to these questions over the next few posts. Chuck started Tableau’s Professional Services consulting division and is one of the few individuals Tableau has designated as a Tableau Zen Master. If you have questions, you’ll get the best answers here!

Q: Tableau is sold as a BI tool, data visualization tool, data exploration tool, data analytics tool, etc. How would you define Tableau, as a company and as a product suite?
A: Tableau’s vision is to help people see and understand data. The emphasis is on making the process simple so that anyone can use it and understand the issues and opportunities in the data.

Q: What is data visualization and why is it important?
A: Visualization is nothing more than looking at data in charts/graphs – typically a way to view many information points on a single view – a single screen. Imagine looking at an Excel spreadsheet with a few thousand rows and 20 columns that includes Sales$ and Profit$. If your job is to summarize the data in many ways and find something insightful or find outliers with each change, it might take hours to sift through the data. Now, imagine you can look at the data in a Sales$ vs Profit$ scatter plot and with a simple drag and drop feature, you are able to see all the combinations of the causal and influencing factors. You can now do a visual analysis in seconds with every view on a single screen. In business, the winner is the one that gets to actionable insights faster. Data visualization is what gets you there fastest.

Q: What are Tableau dashboards?
A: A dashboard can be a cleaned up single chart/graph or multiple graph/charts on a single screen. The goal of a dashboard is to display views that tie some business processes together to convey one or more actionable insights. Just as a glance at the display in a car gives the driver a quick view as to the health of the car, the Tableau dashboard will do the same for users viewing it.

Q: I keep hearing about visualization best practices. Where can I learn more? Does Tableau follow best practices?
A: Yes, there are some published best practices, including several of our own on-demand webinars: 10 Best Practices for Tableau Dashboard Design as well as an excellent look at the neuroscience behind visualizations: Information Dashboard Science and Design. That said, if what you are doing works for you, don’t worry about finding best practices. Instead, follow some guidelines – what I call GOOD practices (I don’t like the term BEST because there are many exceptions). A good practice example is: be careful on the color you use because you will likely have some color-blind folks in your audience.

Q: I’ve heard that Tableau facilitates storytelling with data. What is that and how does Tableau help?
A: Tableau has a story points capability that allows users to structure multiple, interactive views into a logical sequence to more effectively tell a story. I’ve heard people say: I can do the same thing with PowerPoint. Maybe, but here are a couple advantages of using Tableau to build your story:

  • In the design process, it is one or two mouse clicks to swap from the interactive chart (story point) to the story board itself
  • The process puts you into a storytelling mindset – which typically makes the final product significantly more effective

There are several good books on storytelling available. A couple include:

Q: How long does it take to learn Tableau?
A: Ask any Tableau Zen Master, you can be effective as a Tableau user in 4 hours. With a two-day training class, you can be good. For the rest of your life, you will learn something new, every day. Senturus regularly offers excellent Tableau training classes. Check out the Senturus schedule of instructor-led online training classes. Or you can arrange for custom developed courses or mentoring for your organization.

Q: If I get stuck using Tableau how do I get help?
A: Lots of help is available. The Senturus Knowledge Center offers on-demand webinars covering a wide range of Tableau topics, such as: Information Dashboard Science and Design. Search the Tableau manual, contact Tableau support (great reputation for quick follow-up and resolution), and ask the community. The Tableau community is incredibly active and supportive, many people are really trying to help each other. Another good resource is the Tableau community forum.

Q: What are the differences between Tableau Desktop and Tableau Server?
A: Tableau Desktop is a stand-alone tool that allows users to connect to databases and do analysis of the data. There are three versions of Desktop:

  1. Professional is the unlimited version – connects to all data sources
  2. Personal is the limited version – connects to flat data sources as well as a couple of others
  3. Public is a free version with limited data access and no ability to save your work locally,  you can only save to a public cloud installation of Tableau server

Tableau Server is a web-based server, allowing you to use any browser (no plugins required) to interact with views published from Tableau Desktop.

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