Art vs Science : How I Learned Tableau

In 2015, the year when I turned 25, I was already popular among folks for being able to solve problems with Microsoft Excel; I had made hundreds of PowerPoint slides and never wrote a SQL code. I had an honors bachelor degree in English Literature and did not know a thing about computer science. I had love for numbers and had taken a class on inferential statistics by Dr. Çetinkaya-Rundel. Then Tableau happened to me.

Like most of the people, I played around with the software and decided to learn it on my own. And it really worked. There is the community, amazing on-demand videos and Tableau Public. But learning resources is not what I am going to discuss in this post. I will rather discuss my perception of the software and the learning process that was going inside me as I was learning software.

Tableau : Art or Science?

As I was writing calculated fields, thinking of visualizations and creating charts, coming out of Excel's cellular mindset was not easy for me. But at the same time, I also had realized that this is not the right way to do it.

I will have to unlearn if I want to learn Tableau.

So I unlearned. I started fresh and asked myself, "What does Tableau do for me?" and the answer came from within me, "Tableau lets me communicate my ideas to others." That was it. I was not dealing with an IT tool, I was actually dealing with a communication tool.

In that sense, Tableau seemed much more similar to PowerPoint as compared to Excel. I embraced all the knowledge I had gained from using PowerPoint over the years - the power of storytelling. All of a sudden what was science to me, became the art. The Tableau canvas literally became the canvas to communicate my ideas to others. All I had to do was

  • to learn how to operate this thing (which online tutorials did a great job at)
  • and dive into the data to find interesting and unique insights
  • outline a story around it
  • And to create a neat, creative and minimal piece of art
  • that engaged audiences and gave them what they wanted (consciously and subconsciously)

The science of Tableau - learning the technical stuff has been not so difficult for me so far. The self intuitive UI of the software, easy to create drag and drop functionality and self recommended charts really do a good job at that. Once you know the option, you just know it, you can keep using it over and over again. What has been the most challenging part of the Tableau is learning the art of Tableau - finding a story (though not as hard because Tableau lets you find outliers, relations and trend easily), creating a story out of it and then effectively communicating it to end consumers. There are many challenges and ways to overcome them. Here is what I do to overcome them and to learn Tableau everyday.

The Art of Communication? WTF! This is a damn software.

A lot of people come to me with the ultimate question that every beginner faces to, "How to learn Tableau?"

And then I say, "By learning how to communicate effectively" This leaves them like, "WTF! This is just a damn software, we can just go and learn it, right?"

Right! And their reaction is quite valid and understandable. Most of people are from computer science background and less from interactive design and other creative fields.

And then I continue, "You can just go and learn the software but that will not really help you to achieve your goals. Tableau is much more than that."

What I did to overcome this challenge is that I bought half a dozen notebooks, the ones without lines like drawing notebooks. And dozen of different colored pens and a set of sketch pens and a box of pencils.

Blueprint of a #KPI Dashboard 📈 #DataViz #MakeoverMonday #Analytics #Dashboard

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And I started to write and draw. If there was a dataset, I would take notes. Create a relationship diagram of fields on it. Draw a lot of charts and write a point to point story. This process required a lot of practice, but it worked. And eventually two things became a habit for me

  • Create AND delete hell lots of charts without any regrets (and take notes)
  • Create blueprints of the dashboard on the paper - the story that I am going to narrate

This helped me. And if you are reading my story in the hope that you can take some key-points from it, then I urge you to do the same as I did. You will be amazed how effective these color pens are. They worked for me.

The Minimal Design Effect

Minimalism works. I learned the art to kill clutter, use sober and matte colors, how to remove those grid-lines and borders and get the font right on tooltips. I learned how to write headlines instead of titles on the charts.

Titles are boring, non-informative, space-consuming and static. Headlines are eveything that titles are not.

Titles are boring, non-informative, space-consuming and static. Headlines are eveything that titles are not.

I also learned to use only three colors on the entire dashboard and learned to add 50 shades of gray (gray works too). Formatting does take time but it is worth it. There are a lot of examples on Tableau Public (I am fan of Ryan Sleeper and Andy Kriebel in this area) that use minimal design. The best way is to look at those or google the term Minimal Design and then look at all the beautiful images that pop up. A great source of inspiration.

An Introvert Extrovert

That's what learning Tableau made me. I had to become one if I wanted to succeed with Tableau. All my life I loved to take a corner seat and get the shit done, all on my own. This did not work with Tableau. I needed to get into heads of people. And to get into heads of people, I had to change. I needed to talk to people. It wasn't that I was not talking to people earlier, but this time the communication required was on a whole different level. So I became extrovert. I talked to people, I asked them really fucked up questions

  • "Why do you need this dashboard?"
  • "How it should change your day to day life?"
  • "What are your biggest challenges?"
  • "Why do you want a pie when there can be better alternatives?

Sometimes my questions made people uncomfortable, people just want that damn dashboard on the BRD, why should I be asking all these non-sense questions to them. I learned to how to win their trust that whatever I am asking them is eventually going to help them and is the part of the design process (some were shocked to learn that this is a data design project, not a data analytics project)

I learned this lesson from my favorite Stephanie Evergreen from Evergreen Data, she always loves to ask her clients before doing a data visualization, "What's your point?" and she always gets the point.

The Sweet Spot of Learning Tableau