What is Tableau Used for? Get the Most out of Your Analytics
Tableau enables rapid data preparation, analytics, visualization, and secure sharing of analysis. Tableau Desktop is commercial software rather than open-source. However, Tableau Student is free for students. Tableau Public is a free download for anyone. That makes Tableau accessible to everyone.
And because of Tableau’s accessibility and wild popularity, there are Tableau user groups in every major city as well as virtual groups and an annual conference that drew 20,000 in-person participants in 2020.
Tableau works on a wide variety of data sources and computing platforms. Tableau can import data from files (Excel spreadsheets as well as CSV and JSON files). It can also connect to a wide variety of databases (Redshift, Hadoop, MySQL, Access, Teradata, you name it). You can combine data tables in Tableau Desktop using the drag and drop interface, which creates SQL joins. Relationships provide an alternate way to combine tables.
Tableau Prep Builder handles more complex multi-step data cleaning and joins. Tableau Prep Builder uses a visual process flow to clean and combine tables.
Data connections can be either live or extract. Live connections query the database directly. Data extract connections query a copy of the data source stored as a file. Tableau stores data extracts in the “hyper” format, with a .hyper file extension. Extracts can be faster, and Tableau can use them without a connection to the original data source, but they must be refreshed to receive updates from the original data source.
Once you’ve connected to a data source, Tableau is ready to help you generate insights. Tableau provides segmentation, aggregation, comparison, calculations, filtering, and statistical analysis. For example, Tableau can help us understand the coronavirus epidemic. Our dataset might have demographic detail and dates of diagnosis, hospitalization, and death. Tableau would allow us to answer questions like:
- How many people were diagnosed in a given month?
- What was the percent change in the number of new COVID-19 cases from one month to the next?
- Are there seasonal patterns in the data, with cases increasing in the colder months?
- At what ages were those diagnosed with COVID-19? And how do the ages of those diagnosed compare to the ages of those who died?
- What geographies have the most new cases?
SQL database queries can answer some of these questions. So can Excel. But neither tool has the geographic information system (GIS) capability to plot cases on a map and showcase density. Tableau does. SQL also does not have a sophisticated time-series analysis to detect seasonal patterns. Tableau does.
And Tableau’s drag and drop interface gets you to the answer faster. Faster than SQL and faster than Python. Less coding means fewer mistakes. That makes Tableau an efficient tool.
That’s the data exploration when you’re using your data to answer questions. Sometimes data discovery is all you need. If your manager or client asks you a question, you can use Tableau to provide an answer.
Or you can go further by creating an interactive visualization.
Tableau can present results in a table format, which can be great if you’re just looking to answer a specific question. But often, your audience will prefer a graphical representation. As you add fields to the view, Tableau will automatically choose a chart type appropriate to the data. If you want to change it, you can select a different visualization from the “Show me” menu.
Examples of viz types:
- text tables
- pie chart
- bar chart
- stacked bar chart
- side by side bar chart
- packed bubbles
- geographic map
- line chart
- scatter plot
Adding interactive filters allows your audience to subset the data. Labels, tooltips, and colors are customizable. You can combine tables, charts, and maps in a dashboard. This allows you to compare different views of the data side-by-side.
Tableau’s COVID-19 datahub hosts many examples of stunning visualizations built with Tableau. Here’s an example.
Data analytics + visualization = visual analytics
Data analysis and visualization are not separate steps. When a visualization highlights something unexpected or unusual, you’ll want to investigate. Visual analytics means you can create visualizations to understand your data better. For example:
- A scatter plot might highlight some high sales values that have low profitability. In this case, you could pull the underlying data for those sales with a few mouse clicks. Or you could create a new view with just the data included on those sales and add more dimensions and measures to discover why they are not profitable.
- A line chart shows that sales were down in November. You could add a time series model to the view to see whether you should expect variability for that month in the year.
Great work deserves to be shared, but sharing files over email creates versioning challenges and security risks. Fortunately, Tableau provides numerous options for sharing:
- Tableau Desktop can save workbooks. Tableau Desktop and Tableau Reader can then view the workbooks. Tableau Desktop can also export Excel files, images, and PDFs. Exports work well if your visualization doesn’t need to be dynamic.
- Tableau Public is a free open platform where anyone can share visualizations. The platform is great for students and journalists, but not for corporations who want to limit access.
- Tableau Server allows you to share your dashboard with other users through their web browser. Your organization is responsible for the installation and management of their instance of Tableau server. Tableau server can run on an on-premise computing resource or on a cloud provider such as AWS. Unlike with Tableau Public, you can limit access to visualizations shared on Tableau Server. This ensures only the appropriate parties can view sensitive information.
- Tableau Online allows users to see your dashboard through their web browser. Like Tableau Server, Tableau Online works with standard security protocols. Unlike Tableau Server, Tableau Online is a hosted solution – it runs on servers maintained by Tableau.
The Tableau Product Suite
Tableau offers multiple products as well as training, but usually, when people refer to Tableau, they mean Tableau Desktop and Server. Tableau has grouped five products in the Tableau Product Suite as a combined solution for data preparation, visualization, and sharing. Here are the products included in the Tableau product suite:
- Tableau Prep — Visual interface for cleaning, combining, and reshaping data. Tableau Desktop can then use the prepared data.
- Tableau Desktop — Create and publish visualizations. You can run Tableau Desktop on Mac or Windows PC (no Linux yet, sorry!).
- Tableau Server — Host visualization on your own server, either on-premise or with AWS or Azure on the cloud. Works with your company’s existing security protocols.
- Tableau Online — View visualizations on Tableau’s server. Built-in security.
- Tableau Mobile — View visualizations on your phone or tablet.
Other Tableau products
- Tableau Reader — Free software that allows you to view a workbook that someone else has saved. It doesn’t have the built-in security available with Tableau Online or Tableau Server. Anyone with access to the Tableau workbook can open it.
- Tableau CRM — Specifically for analytics with Salesforce CRM
- Tableau Public has most of the features of Tableau Desktop, but with a few limitations:
- You cannot save work locally. You must save it to the Tableau Public server, where it will be publicly viewable.
- Cannot connect to relational databases other than Access. It can connect to Excel files, CSV files, and Google Sheets.
- Does not have Python or R integration.
- The ‘public’ aspect of Tableau Public makes it the wrong option for most corporations.
But it’s a great option for people who want to develop their skills and showcase what they’re learning. The Tableau Public website hosts a daily “Viz of the Day” award. You can view and even download Tableau workbooks that other people have created.
- Tableau Data Catalog a data management tool that provides a view of the data used in Tableau visualizations
- Tableau Developer Tools are not stand-alone software products. Rather, provide the ability to extends the capabilities of other software offerings:
- Develop connections to data sources not currently supported by Tableau.
- Automate Tableau server tasks.
- Embed your Tableau analytics into other applications such as SharePoint and Salesforce.
- Use the Extensions API to add new functionality to Tableau visualizations. For example, allow users to change data in a viz and have that change update the source data in the database.
So what is Tableau?
Tableau became a market leader thanks to its pioneering data discovery and data visualization tools. It is still primarily known for these features. It’s what drew more than 20,000 people to the 2019 Tableau World conference. But these data-driven insights and visualizations aren’t possible without data transformation, provided by Tableau Prep, and data management, provided by Tableau Catalog.
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