Read this introduction to Tableau for users with next to zero experience with business intelligence and data visualization.

KONSKIE, POLAND - November 24, 2019: Tableau Software Inc logo on mobile phone
Image: piter2121/Adobe Stock

Tableau is one of the most popular business intelligence and analytics tools on the market. Tableau is used by companies around the world to help visualize massive troves of data to make that information considerably easier to use. Tableau can work with nearly any type of data and is capable of visualizing it into graphs, charts, maps, bars, plots and more. By visualizing your data, you’ll be able to discern trends, issues, patterns, meanings and relationships so you can be better capable of making crucial business decisions.

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Tableau was designed from the start to help people see and understand the data they use to simplify data-driving decision-making, with features like:

  • Data visualization
  • Business intelligence
  • Data blending, mining and collaboration
  • Query translation into analytics
  • Real-time data analysis
  • No-code data queries
  • Importing multiple and massive data sets
  • Working with large metadata
  • Automation
  • Third-party data source connectors

With Tableau, you can create quick data visualizations to gain insights into different sources of data, leverage the power of databases, use statistical analysis to aid in trend forecasts and create at-a-glance dashboards for real-time data visualization.

The different Tableau products

One aspect of Tableau that can be a bit confusing is the differentiation between the different products. You’ll find the following products available for Tableau.

  • Tableau Prep helps users prepare data for analysis.
  • Tableau Desktop makes it easy to interact with your data and reports from the convenience of the desktop. It’s available for macOS and Windows.
  • Tableau Public is a cost-effective option that only saves data to the Tableau public cloud so the data can be viewed by anyone.
  • Tableau Server makes it possible to share the work you create within the Desktop application across your organization with data remaining in-house.
  • Tableau Online, which is similar to Tableau Server, only the data is stored in the cloud.
  • Tableau Reader is a free tool that allows users to view visualizations, but not modify them.

What tool you use to work with Tableau will depend on your needs, budget and company size.

How to use Tableau

I’ll start by saying the best thing you can do for yourself is start out working with the sample data set called Superstore. When you enable this sample data, you don’t have to worry about first creating a data store, which can be quite complicated and time-consuming. Although this skips an important step, you’re better off learning the ins and outs of Tableau’s data visualization tools before you attempt to connect to or build your own data.

The Tableau workflow goes something like this:

  • Connect your data to your account.
  • Manipulate your data.
  • Focus your results.
  • Create visualizations for your data.

The hardest part of working with Tableau is manipulating data because that’s where you decide which aspects of the data will be added to visualizations and how that data will appear. Here’s how it works after you’ve imported your data:

Create a new worksheet, then drag one or more tables from the Data pane into either the Columns or Rows section (Figure A).

Figure A

Dragging table entries from the far left pane into the Columns and Rows section.

Focus your results by adding filters to the view. This is done from the Data pane — where Columns and Rows live — by right-clicking an entry and selecting Show Filter (Figure B).

Figure B

Adding a filter for the Category item in the Columns section.

You should now see the filter in the far right pane, where you can select and deselect items (Figure C).

Figure C

Selecting items in the Category filter to be viewed.

You can add a bit of color to your visualization by dragging one of the entries from the Columns or Rows section down to Color under Marks, which will automatically add a color legend and assign a color palette according to your data (Figure D).

Figure D

I’ve dragged Category to the Color section of Marks to make it easier to visualize the data.

You can continue working like this, adding new items from the Data pane into either Rows or Columns and filtering the information as you go. If you hover your cursor over any one of the data points in the main view, you’ll see a pop-up that describes the data (Figure E).

Figure E

September 2019 saw sales of $20,174, which exceeded the target.

One thing to keep in mind is that Tableau autosaves your work, so you don’t have to worry about saving as you go. That saved work will be found in Sheets that you can then add to a new Dashboard.

How to build a dashboard in Tableau

After you’ve manipulated the data to fit your needs, you can then build a dashboard to make it easy to view the data in real-time.

To do this, click Dashboard | New Dashboard. In the resulting window, drag the sheet you just worked with from the left pane to the main section (Figure F).

Figure F

Adding our new sheet to the new Dashboard.

You can add as many Sheets as necessary to your new dashboard. Just remember, however, the more Sheets you add to a Dashboard, the more crowded it will be.

As you can see (Figure G), I’ve added only three Sheets to the Dashboard and it’s already a bit crowded.

Figure G

Three Sheets to the Tableau Dashboard.

After you’ve finished adding your Sheets to the Dashboard, you can edit various elements in each by clicking the edit button in the top-right corner or selecting the filter option to filter out various data points.

Once you’ve finished, click Publish to create a new Workbook, where you can interact with your Dashboard (Figure H).

Figure H

Our new Workbook is ready to be used.

Click on the Dashboard you just created — ours is called Dashboard 7, but you can name it whatever you like — to reveal the interactive data (Figure I).

Figure I

From this Dashboard, anyone who can view it can also Watch it to keep tabs on any changes.

And that’s a basic walkthrough of how you use Tableau. There’s much more you can do with this powerful business intelligence platform, but the most important first step is to just learn how to navigate the various elements of the tool. It’s complicated and it can be overwhelming at first. Take these very simple steps first and then go back and walk through with an eye for even more detail.

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