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Tooltips: Tableau dashboards from a user experience perspective

Compare the following tooltips in Tableau. Which one provides the best experience to the user?




The decision might seem obvious, the second one. For some reason it just looks and feels better and it’s easier to digest. However  a user experience designer would argue that each formatting decision is deliberate and those decisions lead to a better experience. Tooltips in Tableau allow you to add context and relevant information at the right place and at the right time and for such an important function, it’s often one of the areas that gets the least amount of time during dashboard design. Having come from a UX (User Experience) background, I thought I’d shed some light into how you can look at tooltips differently and enhance the quality of the contextual information you include in your dashboard.

With UX in mind, you would start by asking  two questions before you even tried to format the tooltip. How is the tooltip activated and how long does it stay active. Tooltips in tableau are activated by a hover, however how long they stay active for is a little less straight forward. It depends on how you use your mouse and how big the target is (what you’re hovering over) .

The general rule in Tableau is this. If you move your mouse over a tooltip and keep the mouse still, the tooltip stays active for 10 seconds and then disappears. If the target is large and you make small movements while hovering then the timer for the tooltip resets and you get another 10 seconds every time the mouse stops over the target. If your target is small and you move your mouse off the target, it will disappear

Ok so what? We’ll a UX professional would then work with this 10 second time limit in mind and also consider the size of the target.  The first thing they might do is try and figure out how much information can fit in that space. Using reading speed averages which for the “average” adult is roughly 300 words per minute. A little maths suggest that in 10 seconds that translates to roughly 50 words. The following passage of text  is a little longer (58 words). Depending on what you’re trying to convey this could be plenty but in other cases it’s not enough.

“A simple shape of Euclidean geometry that is the set of all points in a plane that are at a given distance from a given point, the center. The distance between any of the points and the centre is called the radius. It can also be defined as the locus of a point equidistant from a fixed point.”

Here comes the  caveat, this average is based on prose. If you make the content  easy to read or “scannable” you can push this boundary much further. Not convinced? have a look at the image below. Look at the left side then the right side. Which side took less time to process?


When you saw the shape and annotations, you got most of the information straight away, but reading the description took far longer and to be honest you might need a second pass to make sure it went in..

That’s what the second tooltip does. You can’t use shapes in tooltips but you can manipulate, font colour, font size, and text placing to help articulate your point and make the data easier to process, and if you’re a fan of ASCII art then maybe shapes and images aren’t out of scope. The important thing to note here is that even the subtlest of changes can help the information sink in much faster e.g. note how in the image above, the annotation for “o” is centered with the image and the text above it to verbally and visually signify what’s going on.

As for the target size, in this case, most of the circles are a decent size so it’s not a problem but sometimes the target can be tiny (Image below) and this makes for a less enjoyable experience especially if the user’s mouse isn’t great. Consider making targets larger where possible or conveying the information in another way.

Small marks in Tableau creating small targets for tooltips.

It seems like a lot of effort for something that should be intuitive but if at some point you don’t invest the time into challenging yourself on why you make certain decisions about how best your users interact with your dashbaords, how can you be sure you’re providing the best experience?

Why not share you thoughts & questions or have a go at some awesome tooltips and share them below.

Tim Ngwena

London, UK

One thought on “Tooltips: Tableau dashboards from a user experience perspective

  1. If you follow the three rules of dashboard design: overview, zoom & filter, details on demand, tooltips are a necessity.

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