What is Tableau? Understanding an Analyst’s Most Important Tool

Tableau is a data visualization tool essential to data analysts of all experience levels. It’s a straightforward tool for beginners, as they can use its drag-and-drop technology to quickly create visualizations (vizzes). Advanced users can expand Tableau’s functionality through formulas, filters, and other interactive elements. It allows users to rapidly create analyses from existing data and upload these analyses onto the internet. 

Tableau 2020, 19, 18 & 10: Certified Associate certification <!––>

Last Updated September 2020


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From beginners to skills needed for Certified Associate or Desktop Specialist certifications. Tableau 2018, 2019, 2020 | By Phillip Burton

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Common Tableau uses

Tableau allows users to translate raw data into highly visual dashboards and analyses, that are ideal for explaining data trends to non-technical stakeholders. The most common uses include:

  • Creating maps, bar charts, line charts, scatter plots, and more.
  • Providing contextual data information as needed through Tooltips, a brief analysis shown when you hover over your analysis.
  • Linking sheets so that users can dig deeper into data analysis.
Bar Chart

Creating your first Tableau visualization

You don’t need to be a Tableau expert to get started building your first visualization. You can create a visualization in five steps:

  1. Select your data in the Data Source tab.

2. Open a blank sheet.

3. Select the fields to use. Tip: Hold the Control key (Command key on Macs) to select multiple fields

4. Click the “Show me” button to select a visualization type. Available vizzes are highlighted.

5. Select the type of visualization and watch Tableau instantly create it. To adjust the viz, drag and drop fields to or from the presentation.

You can expand your vizzes in a variety of ways:

  • Dashboards: Avoid a cluttered dashboard by using Tooltips to highlight displayed data and add context by showing other values or vizzes within the Tooltip. Dashboards can be used to show multiple vizzes together on a single page. To do so, create a blank dashboard, then drag and drop as many visualizations as desired on to it. 
  • Filter: Use filters in a variety of ways to hone in on specific data. You can filter data to focus on a particular category. Or, use one viz to act as a filter for a second viz. For example, in a viz about a retail chain, select a store location, then explore a separate viz for that particular store.
  • Story: Tableau offers a feature called story, which is a sequence of visualizations that help you present a cohesive data analysis. This allows you to stage a story exactly how you’d like it without having to readjust filters each time the related dashboard is accessed. 
  • Comparisons: Make data comparisons by using visual analytics like trend lines or averages. 
  • Formulas: Build additional calculations using formulas. While Tableau formulas are derived from standard Excel formulas, more advanced formulas are available. For example, a time intelligence formula compares present values against values from a week ago.
  • Maps: Analyses that include geographic locations can be displayed in maps with values represented as symbols, colors, or heat. 
  • Explain Data: In version 2019.3, Tableau added a new feature called Explain Data, which builds artificial intelligence technology into the analysis, so that analysts can understand the “Why?” behind data.

Which Tableau is right for you?

Tableau offers both a premium paid product as well as a free tool. The premium Tableau is around $70 per month per user, which is much higher than the price for Power BI Pro of around $10 a month per user. This price allows you full use of:

  • Tableau Desktop: This allows you to save files onto your local and networked hard drive as well as on the Internet. It also allows you to use an expanded list of data sources, including big data.
  • Tableau Server or Tableau Online: This allows you to save files created in Tableau Desktop in a secure, private location, either on your server or a secure online cloud, to allow collaboration with other users in your organization.
  • Tableau Prep: This allows you to manipulate your data before it reaches Tableau Desktop, in a similar way to Power BI’s “Get and Transform” or PowerQuery functionality, and allows you to schedule and monitor your data flows.
  • Tableau Mobile: This mobile app allows you to view your analyses, which have previously been uploaded onto Tableau Server or Tableau Online, on your Apple or Android device.

There are also more advanced versions, such as Tableau Python Server, which can integrate with the Algorithmia library to enable machine learning, which can be useful for data engineering.

Tableau Public, which is available from public.tableau.com, is the main free version. It provides most of the functionality of the full-price versions with two main exceptions:

  • There is a reduced list of data sources that you can use. For example, you can’t load data into Tableau Public directly from SQL Server, although you could import data from an Excel spreadsheet that you had previously extracted from SQL Server.
  • Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, all visualizations have to be saved on the internet, on a public cloud. There is no option in Tableau Public for saving your work on your local hard drive or network. This means that if you have a private data source containing sensitive data such as people’s zip codes, date of birth, or salary, you should not save it onto the internet, where you won’t have as much security control over it.

As the free version is otherwise a fully featured analytics platform, Tableau Public allows you at the very least to try out all of the features for yourself and see whether the free or paid-for version could be useful for your company.

There is also another free edition called Tableau Reader, which allows you to load visualizations which have previously been created in the paid-for versions.

How can I learn how to use Tableau?

Tableau’s style is distinctive, and that plus the terminology may cause some challenges at first. For example, dimensions and measures are put into shelves, and there are various cards and marks for filtering and creating your analyses. Also, sometimes navigating your way through more advanced functionality can be non-obvious at first. 

However, there are many good Udemy courses which will enable you to get the best of Tableau, allowing you to create visualizations that can both impress and tell a story. In my course, for instance:

  • We’ll create dashboards and storyboards so that you can tell a story. 
  • We’ll create maps, hierarchies, groups and sets, and all sorts of chart types. 
  • We’ll enhance our charts with reference lines and bands, and extend our data analysis with trends and forecasting. 
  • We’ll add formula calculations, quick table calculations, and LOD calculations. 
  • Finally, we investigate advanced data connections and mapping.

It will only take a few hours to learn how to create your own analyses. And if you wanted, afterwards you could enter the official Tableau exams and get a certification if you pass. Wouldn’t that look good on your CV or resume?

Thank you for reading this article. I hope that soon you will create your first Tableau analyses.

What is Tableau?

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