Bad Charts Delight

I know you love them. C'mon, admit it. Pies, donuts, bubbles,... anything stacked or layered. You love 'em. We all do. There's something about these bad chart choices that are appealing to us. If they didn't tickle our insides we wouldn't see so many of them on infographics and dashboards.

Yet we know (yes, we do) that these are bad choices for conveying information. Our job as dashboard builders is to create a cohesive and accurate information message that can stand alone in a room without us there to interpret.

While these charts may be our secret guilty pleasure, for many of the managers, directors and vp's, these are the standard charts they're used to and that they want to see. You will spend days building the perfect dashboard and then in the final meeting someone will tell you that it's nice, but... they "just want to see" a pie chart (or bubbles, or stacked bar) showing....yada, yada, yada.

My advice is to head them off at the pass. Put a pie chart or bubble on the dashboard at the start. But use it as a filter or design element. Pick a main dimension field with very few categories. If it has 2-3 use a pie chart, if 3-5 use a bubble chart. But don't use one with more than 5 categories, even that may be pushing it.

Here's an example using packed bubbles as a filter. The reason packed bubbles are considered 'bad' charting is because we have trouble discerning and comparing the sizes of the circles. A sorted bar chart would do a superior job of instantly communicating the difference between categories, but for some reason they don't delight. Bubbles delight.

The dashboard below has a pie chart with a couple hundred different slices. Oh. Yes. I. Did.

The tool-tip does provide the % value for each slice, but it is really intended just to give a sense of the place of the chosen country in relation to the rest of the world. Choose a less wealthy country and you'll discover one of the dreaded dangers when using pie. You never know when one of these will turn up (_|_) and everyone in the meeting will start giggling.

I've also used the semi-bad stacked area chart. Using it with the country dimension makes it impossible for the user to figure out the real changes occurring for each country.  In this case, I've used it to show the total trend for each region and to highlight one country in comparison to the rest of the world.

I've set the selected country to display against the 0 axis, rather than in order of size or name.  Can you see the difference?  This is the problem with all stacked trend area or bar charts. You can really only tell what is going on with the category at the bottom.

So there you go. You can have your donuts, pies, bubbles and layers. Just carefully.



Optimize Your Extract

It's a little thing, and I frequently forget to do it, but it makes a huge difference.

Basically, Tableau takes your calculations and stores the fields in the extract so it doesn't have to re-compute them every time the view gets opened.

So if you're building dashboards and creating a lot of calculated fields it's a good idea to remember to optimize the extract as you go along.

I didn't realize until today that having filters set to Show Only Relevant Values was costly, so from now on  I'll create a calculated field to speed things up.



Are You a Tabaholic?

Kathy Sierra, 2005 click to read more

Someone recently implied, quite publicly, that Tableau users are 'dumb'. I'm not even going to provide the link to the interview because this type of nonsense marketing is becoming more common. Get quoted saying something negative about Tableau and hopefully you'll get people to check out your product. Is that really 'smart' marketing?

Kathy Sierra wrote about this phenomenon a while back:
You don't really have passionate users until someone starts accusing them of "drinking the koolaid." You might have happy users, even loyal users, but it's the truly passionate that piss off others enough to motivate them to say something. Where there is passion, there is always anti-passion... or rather passion in the hate dimension. If you create passionate users, you have to expect passionate detractors. You should welcome their appearance in blogs, forums, and user groups. It means you've arrived. Forget the tipping point--if you want to measure passion, look for the koolaid point.

Personally, I don't mind being referred to as dumb. I love being underestimated - it happens to me all the time because I'm a little odd. It's my secret weapon. 'Promise a ham sandwich and deliver roast pig' (Joss Whedon reference for you diehard browncoats).  Tableau enables me to do this, with all the trimmings.

10 Signs You Too Are TabAddicted

  1. You use the word 'viz' in real world conversations. For example, talking to family and friends about Game of Thrones. "Yeah, the red wedding was awesome; I did a viz about it". Conversation dies.

  2. You have Tableau friends you have never met in the real world.

  3. You can't read the paper without being 'viz' inspired and heading to your computer to hunt down data on the subject.

  4. When asked for help by a colleague, you say "Check out my blog, I did a post about that" and you know you sound like a dork the instant the words leave your mouth.

  5. It's 7 o'clock and you haven't left your desk all day, but your Tableau workbook has 56 tabs of visualizations, your eyeballs look like swirling lollipops and you look around to high-five someone, but everyone else has gone home like normal people.

  6. You use Tableau-isms, such as Tablites, Tableaudown, and Tablites. Paul.

  7. You refer to other Tableau users by their twitter handles, eg. @russiansphinx, @datablick, @datapscientist.

  8. You dream of charts IN COLOR.

  9. You have nightmares of being chased by pac-man-like exploding pie charts.

  10. Your spouse has informed you that he/she will smother you in your sleep if you go near your computer during the next holiday.
The remedy?

Sorry, I don't have one.  Shouldn't everyone be so lucky to have a tool that makes them kick-ass and obsessively in love with their work?


Finishing Touches to Avoid Clickin' Confusion

How often do you find users get confused clicking around on your viz? Surprisingly, a lot, right? You think it's fairly simple, just click to filter.  But most people double-click. Telling everyone not to double-click is pointless. So they double click and zoom in on a chart and are completely baffled as to how to get out of it (it's not entirely intuitive). Or they click on a chart that doesn't zoom, but it highlights and dims all the other values (which you don't want).


Steal and Nod

Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation ~ MASON COOLEY

To better understand technique, many art students will at some time be given the task of replicating the masters. It's a great way to learn and is useful for learning dashboard design in Tableau as well.

The Tableau Public community share an incredible amount of tips and how-to's as well as some amazingly innovative and clever tricks. A lot of people I talk to don't realize that you can download most of the workbooks people have posted (just look for the download note on the bottom right of the viz) and that the author knows that their work is out there for all to see and have graciously agreed to share it with you. You can open the workbook and look behind the curtain to see how they worked their magic. It's not considered stealing, so long as you give credit (the nod).

So next time you see a viz of the day or a blog post with a cool viz, download it and try to replicate it with your data. It's a great exercise - you will find that your learning grows in leaps and bounds this way. I think we all learn something much better when we've struggled with it, rather than just having someone show or tell us how.


Why So Blue?

I don't know if you've noticed, but I love blue.

In the olden days, before the internet and according to my son, when I lived in a cave and cooked over a pit with the newly discovered fire, we did all our charts in shades of grey.  Because only the execs had color printers.   As a result, people were so excited to create some colorful reports for the big giant heads that things got a little out of control. Some of the reports were so horrific in color, that I think they may have caused color blindness.

As a result, when I was asked to use color, I used blue.  Blue is a reasonable choice - almost everyone likes blue - both men and women, and it's associated with calm and clarity. It doesn't conflict with other colors or make a statement. Also, if someone chooses to print your blueful report on a black and white printer, you can pretty much trust the shades of grey that will come out.


5 Tips to Good Vizzin'

Before Tableau, I made a lot of dashboards in Excel. It has been quite difficult to free myself from the constraints that Excel (or other standard tools) forced upon me when it came to storytelling with data. Let me explain.

In the past, with other tools, I would envision the outcome first and work backwards.  Often I would be specifically asked for a certain type of chart showing certain information; sometimes I would be asked to investigate a problem, but I would still jump to the type of chart(s) I needed first and then go about getting my data into the state needed to put it in those charts.


Bubble, Bubble, Oil and Trouble

There's a lot of news about the Keystone Pipeline lately. Will Obama give the go ahead or not? Man, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. This is not a simple black and white issue. Disclaimer: I'm a Canadian born in Northern Alberta and I have a lot of family members who work in the oil and gas industry or who benefit from it. I'm not for or against the Keystone Pipeline, I'm seriously conflicted.

If you want to learn more about this issue, check out Leslie Young's series on Global News. She's done a heck of a job getting this data and the series isn't biased. Another good source is the Guardian (always best to go to Britain for unbiased North American news) or our beloved David Suzuki (who is one of the most credible environmental activists on the planet).