Saturday, 18 January 2014

Is Tableau Elitist

Is Tableau Elitist?

A few days ago someone going by the name of Mr Elite, who gets a least a couple of points for an ironic name) posted a comment to a blog post on the Tableau Website. The post was "advertising" a viz design competition along the lines of the Iron Viz Championship that has now become established as one of the highlights of the Tableau customer conference. There have been a few of these competitions that have been run outside of Tableau, in particular one at Facebook and one organised by Emily Kund at her workplace. Mr Elites objection appears to be that by Tableau promoting these events it means that only those of Jedi status or greater need apply and that unless you are able to hack your way through advanced table calculations and the like then you are of no interest.

Now when i read that comment I smelt the faint whiff of troll, not in small part to the fact it was an anonymous comment which always seems to have a certain fragrance, there seems to be a lot of hostility in the language. My initial reaction was they they were talking a load of rubbish and after reflecting on it for a few days I haven't changed my mind.

A year or so ago Stephen Few wrote a blog post about the fact that Tableau had lost its way by including viz types that fall outside the accepted best practices types, word clouds, bubble charts and the like. In it he argued that the thing that made Tableau so good was that it guided you down the accepted path. This started a big, and rather heated debate with people pointing out cases when these non-standard chart types can be valid and reasons why sometimes you need you viz to have a little bit more bling to catch the eye. Mr Elites comments, though no where near the quality or reasonably argued as Stephens did make me think back to how the product and the user base has changed.

Tableau is now at version 8.1, its had many years of refinement and development. There have been numerous new features added, some major, some minor, some game changing, others not so much. There are some glaring omissions (would it kill them to put frigging autosave in? Its kinda standard thing now and you just assume its there in the background, just in case you need it Vote for it here). The software has matured, and therefore so has the userbase. You have people that have been using it since the very first version, many have been using it for years and so naturally their skills have improved. They know all the little tricks to get every ounce of the program and make it do things that no-one knew it could do. There are people whos design skills create beautiful dashboards that look a million miles away from the standard bar chart. But each and everyone of those people at one point was a newbie. They all sat down with a blank page and wondered what these buttons did. What a pill was, and why was it blue and green. Why this function didnt work how they thought it would and swore at the screen.

A superb blog post by Emily Kund (One of the best tableau blog posts of the last 12 months) talked about her own Identity Crisis in the Tableau world as she had reached a cross roads and was unsure where to go in order to improve her Tableau skills. This generated a fascinating debate about peoples skills and specialist areas within Tableau. One of the things its really highlighted though, and here's what Mr Elite should note, theres not a single person working with Tableau that knows everything. Some people are fantastic at advanced Table Calculations, Some hack the xml, some concentrate on design, others on performance. Even those in the Zen Masters, those most revered in the community are not experts at everything, but what they do all share is the willingness to help others.

i think Tableau is the most intuitive and easy to use pieces of software that i have come across. Every time i click a button or move a slider or select an option you can sense the fact that someone thought about how that action should behave. A novice, wil very little instruction can go from zero to a fully interactive dashboard in a matter of hours, just by feeling thier way around the interface and experimenting. And if they need help, well its everywhere. Tableau themselves provide a superb manual and hours of instructional videos, all for free. You can download any public dashboard, pick it apart and see how it was made (this is a superb learning tool). There is the forum, Facebook, twitter where the community hangout, ready and willing to help anyone, at any level with any problem, no matter how big or how small. You never feel dumb for asking the most simple question, why? cos everyone had that same question once.

Far from being a tool for the Elite, Tableau feels like the tool for everyone. Elissa Fink said in a recent interview that they want to put data discovery into the hands or the normal user, and not the preserve of the data scientist or analysis. I've seen that first hand at our work where people are able to interrogate their own data and get real insight, without every knowing anything about data structures, SQL, warehousing. What they do know is what the dimensions mean and what the significance of a 0.5% increase in a measure this month is to their department.

Going back to the Viz contests that are cropping up and whos existence sparked the Mr Elite comments. Instead of seeing this as elitist and only rewarding those that know how to hack the software or are at Yoda levels of competence they should be seen as a learning opportunity. Give the same data set, what do difference people come up with. What techniques do they use, how do they get around those little problems that still hold Tableau back. They serve to show you whats possible to achieve and that anyone can also produce work to that standard.

See them as what you can do, not what you have to do.

Matt Francis

Author & Editor

Tableau Zen Master, Social Ambassador, Wrangler of Data, Vizzer of Data


  1. Maybe the winners of some of the higher profile contests like the TCC IronViz are the "elite" users, but every level can benefit from Tableau contests. For example, my local user group recently had an art contest. Analysis was not part of the winning criteria, just artistic merit. What was the point? To get people to look at the software differently and learn something new.

    I often find myself getting into the rut of running similar analyses and not expanding my Tableau skills. Participating in a competition like this forces me to use different chart types (line graphs and bar charts aren't going to win). I also learn more advanced formatting functions and even the value of reshaping data in different ways.

    None my Tableau user group would be considered elite. But we created some amazing looking vizes, learned something, and had a lot of fun. Isn't that what these competitions are for?

    I may never win one of these elite contests. I may never be a Tableau Zen Master. I may never even become a Tableau Jedi. But I think everyone can learn from participating or even just watching these contests. A noob may learn how to more efficiently navigate the software. I moderate user may learn those advanced calcs. A practical, by the book, analyst may learn some design skills. Plus we can all enjoy the competition, even if we're not participating.

  2. I also think it should be noted that those who have proven themselves to be effective Tableau users ought to be among those first considered for judging and/or competing in these contests. I understand being intimidated or even frustrated by this, but its up to the individual to get involved and participate in the learning process. I agree that anyone can benefit by involving themselves in the solution.

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