I have reviewed every release of Tableau, beginning with version 1.0 and continuing now with the latest release, version 3.5. After recently being briefed on version 3.5 by the folks at Tableau, I concluded the meeting with the following statement: “You guys continue to amaze me with how many important features you’re able to address in each release, thoroughly and without compromising quality.” The team at Tableau succeeds better than any other software design and development team I know in identifying the most important next steps in the product’s evolution and proceeding through those steps expertly and thoughtfully. They don’t just tick items off a features list that was composed from customer requests. Rather, they understand the needs of their customers well enough to discriminate between features that really matter and those that would take the product in an unproductive direction. The features that they decide to include are not turned over to developers to code as quickly as possible with little direction; they first go through a rigorous design process to make sure that they are implemented in the most effective way possible.
I’m not going to review all of the new features of this release and none of them in detail, but want to briefly mention and describe those that I find most interesting.
Improved Visual Design
The visual appearance of Tableau was already quite good, but with this release they have managed to make them even better by following some of the visual design principles that I advocate (and Tufte advocated long before I did). It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes to reduce everything that isn’t data to a minimum and to make other simple changes such as orienting labels horizontally whenever possible.
Prior to this release, labels were not included in the display for fields of data that appeared in the columns (as opposed to the rows). In the example below, the label “Product Type / Product” would not have appeared in the body of the display as you see here. If you were the analyst who created the display, you knew these field labels because they appeared elsewhere on the screen, but if you passed the display on to someone else as an image, those field labels would not have been included. This improvement, along with others the folks at Tableau have been focusing on make it much easier to pass the results of your analysis on to others without having to spend time to polish the display.
Sometimes you want to quickly focus your attention on a subset of data that appears on the screen without filtering out everything else. The new legend highlighting feature makes this possible in an incredibly simple manner. The graph below is certainly not one that you would want to present to others for the purpose of making fine comparisons between these 13 products, but it is one that you might use during the process of data analysis to get the big picture of what’s going on.
As it is, however, if you wished to compare the performance of particular products through the year, this display is too cluttered and the process of associating the labels that appear in the legend to the appropriate lines in the graph is time-consuming. For instance, if you wanted to closely compare the two decaf products without being distracted by the other eleven, you could filter out the other eleven. This works great, but what if you wanted to focus on the two decaf products without losing a sense of how they compare to the whole, the complete set of 13 products? Now, through legend highlighting, you can accomplish this by dimming out all lines in the graph except the decaf products, which allows you to focus on specific data without losing a sense of how it relates to the whole. Here’s how this would look:
Sometimes data displays that are used for analysis or reporting involve multiple files, such as several data sources and sometimes even images that are incorporated into the display (for example, a map). In previous versions, if you wished to make the display available to others, the process of packaging all of the files that were needed was painful and time-consuming. In Tableau Desktop 3.5, even if the display will be viewed by others in a Web browser or you’re sending it as an email attachment, you can save it as a Packaged Workbook file, so that what gets passed on contains everything that’s needed.
Organizations that are looking for ways to make information available to whomever needs it, along with most of the features that Tableau provides for interacting with data (sorting, filtering, etc.) will welcome Tableau Reader as manna from heaven. Just like the Adobe Acrobat reader that made it easier to share documents as PDFs, the Tableau Reader is a free product that can be downloaded in seconds. In other words, if you have a copy of Tableau Desktop 3.5, which you use for a particular data analysis task that you’d like to pass on to others to perform, you now have the means to do so, for free. The reader cannot be used to access and interact with data other than what the workbook was designed to access and do, but most people don’t need to create analyses from scratch, they simply need to interact with a defined set of data in predictable ways, which they can do with Tableau Reader. You might wonder why Tableau is willing to make something this valuable available without charge. They know that as more and more people are exposed to the value of their tools, demand for Tableau Desktop and Tableau Server will drive greater overall revenues in the long run.
Web Server and Client
Speaking of Tableau Server, a web server version of the product, along with a web browser client, was released earlier this year without a lot of fanfare, but it deserves it. It was only a matter of time before customer demand for a Web version of the product could not be ignored. Similar to Tableau Reader, which allows you to distribute all the functionality that many people need for free, Tableau Server allows you to make a greater degree of functionality available to people across the organization for a fraction of the cost of buying individual copies of the desktop product. Many business intelligence vendors that have introduced new web versions of their existing desktop products, came out with web versions that had but a fraction of the desktop product’s functionality and worked so differently from the desktop product that people had to learn how to use them from scratch, The functionality and look-and-feel of Tableau’s web product, however, are surprisingly close to its desktop sibling. Some of this similarity was achieved by subtle improvements to Tableau Desktop 3.5 that were designed to make the desktop interface more closely match that of the new web client.
Tableau Server 1.5 was released along with Tableau Desktop 3.5, which includes refinements to the server product. One that I particularly like is the ability to search for Tableau workbooks that are stored on the web server in a variety of flexible and powerful ways. If you’ve ever used a web server business intelligence product, you know how quickly the list of available reports can grow unwieldy, making it almost impossible to find what you need. With Tableau Server 1.5, however, you can search for particular workbooks much like you would search for content on the World Wide Web using a powerful search engine such as Google, but with the addition of filters that help you rapidly and meaningfully pare down the list of matches.
Those of you who regularly read this blog know that I can come down hard on products that work poorly. On the other hand, as this brief review of Tableau Desktop 3.5 and a few other reviews over the years have shown, I can be positively effusive when software warrants praise. In truth, I much prefer bringing good products to your attention than warning you about those that are bad, but I get so few opportunities to do so. Thankfully, the few vendors that know what they’re doing and care about their customers, such as Tableau, give me a break every once in awhile from wielding the gavel of shame.