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Five indicators you aren’t using Tableau to its full potential

I recently spent some time with a customer and the day had a very Yin-Yang feel to it. The morning was all about getting the existing reports just so; questions about printing reports and how to get them perfect over multiple pages, how to replicate existing Excel reports, how to control the widths of columns in tables – all things that are possible but I’ll be honest I wasn’t particularly enjoying the day as much as I normally do when I’m out with clients. Then lunchtime came and I grabbed to opportunity to change some of the existing reports and build them how I would like to see them. After that the afternoon was a complete reversal of the morning, we were exploring the data, answering questions and posing more questions, finding him some profitable customers and showing how money might be saved. I hoped I inspired a change in the way he approached Tableau in future and how it might be used (and most of all we had some fun).

With that experience in mind I thought I’d share some common pointers that might mean you’re not using Tableau to it’s full potential.


1. Your Tableau dashboards all look something like this


If you’re using Tableau to replicate Excel tables then you’re missing a lot. For one you’re probably missing anything the data has to tell you – I get data blindness looking at tables like this as it’s very hard to see trends, patterns and outliers. For instance try this:


Woah! Tables in the East are really unprofitable – how the heck did I miss that in my big table of data.


2. You spend a long time worrying about how to get a multi-page Tableau output printed perfectly

Don’t get me wrong, Tableau can produce multi-page printed output and it can look great, but if you’re trying to replicate existing banded reports with headers, sections and pages then you’re probably better off rethinking what you’re doing or looking for another tool as Tableau doesn’t have the level of formatting control that you’re looking for.

Other tools focus on getting the output perfect for a reason: that’s how their data is consumed – people sit in meetings each with a 70-page and look through it asking questions “Why are Tables in the East not profitable?” and some poor soul has to take away all the questions and try and produce reports for next month that answer them, it’s a long process so perhaps they get a 72-page report next month. Usually the answers are out of date by the time the next meeting comes around and nothing gets answered and key business opportunities are missed.

Enter Tableau, Tableau is interactive, it lends itself to exploratory data analysis. It means that those 70 page reports x 10 attendees (= 1 tree worth of paper) can be replaced by a single browser showing a few dashboards; it means when questions come up someone can sit and dig out the answer there and then by building a chart or visualisation that answers the question. It means more productivity and a better experience for everyone, and means a timely answer to business questions.


3. Your primary use case for Tableau is to output data in csv or xls for consumption elsewhere

Tableau isn’t an ETL tool, it can certainly output data in csv or xls format and lot’s of customer have great success doing that but if all you are using Tableau for then it’s time to think about investing in another tool/platform (like Alteryx maybe). Tableau is great at lots of things, but it’s ability to create lots of Excel crosstabs isn’t one of them.


4. You call the output from Tableau “reports”

Okay so this is a little tenuous because it’s all about semantics but if you’re thinking of Tableau as generating “reports” then it’s likely you’re thinking static reports rather than interactive dashboards.

Tableau offers a lot of flexibility in terms of adding interactivity to existing reports, features like Hierarchies, Quick Filters, Parameters and Actions can all be used to give a user control over what they see and the ability to drill-down into further levels of detail if they need to. Use them in the right way, think sparingly like you’re adding a chilli sauce, and the user will thank you for spicing up their life, over do it and you’ll blow their head off.


5. You yearn for a 3D pie chart or bar chart to be added to Show Me

If you long to see something like the below in Tableau (thanks to Andy Cotgreave for this) then sadly you’ve come to the wrong place. Tableau put a lot of development effort into ensuring it adheres to data visualisation best practice, and this means that confusing views like 3D ones are off the menu. Distracting your users with report “bling” is doing them a disservice, the numbers should speak for themselves and don’t need to addition of fancy gimmicks or misleading perspective.


Chris Love

Nottingham, UK

3 thoughts on “Five indicators you aren’t using Tableau to its full potential

  1. “Woah! Tables in the East are really unprofitable – how the heck did I miss that in my big table of data.”

    I wouldn’t know, because that picture was not zommable, unlike the Excel table replicant. Could you please post a higher definition photo? The fact that it’s illegible hurts the whole point of the comparison.


    1. Hi Barry, I’ve gone and updated the post so you can view the bar chart in full size by clicking on it. Hope that helps!

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