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How to use a Tableau Dashboard: A Beginner’s Guide for Higher Ed Professionals

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Posted By Dan Bradley

Are you new to using Tableau, let alone pronouncing it? Do you experience the pang of fear that you’ve broken something when interacting with a dashboard sent to you? In this post, I’ll cover some of the fundamentals of interacting with Tableau visuals to reduce the hesitations holding you back.

Much of the content presented is drawn from existing Tableau introduction articles, but given that this is our education-focused blog, I’ll present them in a context that may be slightly more familiar.

First off, what does it mean when someone says they, “Use Tableau”?

Good question. Being a “Tableau user” or saying that you “use Tableau” has several interpretations. It creates confusion among users, potential users, and supporters of the community. From my perspective, it typically is intended to mean one of two things:

1. You are an author or creator of new Tableau content (usually interactive dashboards built on top of existing data), e.g., I use Tableau to create a grants management dashboard.

2. You are a consumer/viewer of existing Tableau content (usually interactive dashboards) typically accessed via a web browser, e.g., I use Tableau to generate insights useful for a decision-making from a published dashboard.

It’s a broad, welcoming label and always prompts my curiosity to learn how someone is using Tableau.

My institution just announced that we have Tableau – What does that mean?

An institution often enthusiastically announces that members of their community have access to Tableau, which is kind of a big deal. It means your organization has made a significant, centralized investment in Tableau’s Platform of visual analytics tools.

The Tableau Platform is a suite of products, rather than a single piece of software, e.g., Google Sheets is one product in Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) just like Tableau Desktop is one product in the Tableau Platform. Individual tools within a platform are designed to smoothly integrate and work together. For Tableau, this means supporting an organization’s analytics needs “end-to-end”: from initial data cleaning to sharing visuals to collecting feedback.

“Having Tableau” is a strong signal that your institution:

  • Recognizes the importance of modern, self-service analytics;
  • Values data literacy; and
  • Believes data-informed decisions are simply better decisions.
Figure 1. Tableau Platform

I’ll argue that the fundamental product in an institution’s Tableau Platform investment is the centralized sharing and collaboration hub: Tableau Server or it’s sibling Tableau Online. Tableau Server/Online allows for secure and governed publishing and access to analytics content via web browser. It is often centrally managed by an institution’s IT office. This hub is how a Tableau user shares or accesses others’ dashboards, datasets, and other assets in a protected manner.

In brief, when an institution announces it “has Tableau”, you’ve been granted access to become a “Tableau user” within a designated community. With the right permissions, you can author your own dashboards or view the published work of others within your institution through a centrally managed and secure hub.

When I view a Tableau Dashboard in my browser I’m afraid I’ll break something – What’s safe for me to do?

There are numerous things you can do to interact with a Tableau dashboard. But first, I want to reassure you that interacting with a published Tableau Dashboard, or “view”, is not the same as editing it; you are at no risk of breaking it in this “read-only” viewer mode.

Pulling from Tableau’s help site, “When you interact with a view, you’re simply changing how it looks for a moment. Next time you or your colleagues open the view, it will look exactly as it originally appeared. The underlying data always remains safe and sound, so feel free to explore!”

OK, I’m comfortable that I won’t break anything and ready to explore a dashboard – What should I do first?

There isn’t a right way to begin using a dashboard, but it is important to be aware of your options. I’ll start with several dashboard/view interactivity greatest hits. Next, I’ll cover a few actions you can take at the workbook level.

Filter displayed data: Focus your results

Filtering data is at the heart of interactive dashboards and most authors build in this powerful functionality. Filtering is usually applied two ways to a Tableau dashboard.

First, you may see dropdown, radio button, slider, or typeable interface widgets on a dashboard (by default, these appear on the right side). These interface filters are common in many software tools and websites. They provide users with a clear sense of their options to modify displayed results and are intuitive to use. The downside to interface filters is that they consume valuable screen space and often add visual distraction or noise.

Second, interactive filters allow users to filter by selecting or clicking a mark or marks on a view. For example, selecting a bar in a bar chart filters marks in a second scatterplot. In some cases this functionality is not explicitly called out so may be overlooked by new Tableau users. When in doubt, there is never any harm to selecting a mark on a dashboard to test if an interactive filter action exists.

Figure 2. Career Center Graduate Summary Filter Action Example

Sort displayed data

After segmenting or narrowing down information via filters it can help to restore order through sorting rules. Sort order may be alphabetical, descending based on size, or ascending based on some other related field value.

Different Tableau chart types provide various options to order data but the controls are similar. A simple example is a bar chart. With the click of a button, you can rearrange the order of bars from largest to smallest value first.

Figure 3. Example of sorting actions

View Details about a data point with Tooltips

Tableau dashboards are designed to be interactive. Displayed information changes depending on what you select, where you click, or even where you hover. A common way you’ll see more granular information surfaced up is via tooltip. A tooltip is a popup window that often provides details about a particular data point, or mark. For example, a bar chart may show the sum aggregate of enrollment by college within a university. When hovering over a single college’s bar, a tooltip appears providing a second bar chart by race-ethnicity for the students enrolled within that school.

Figure 4. Hover-over tool tips

Select multiple data points or marks

An easy-to-overlook capability of Tableau dashboard visuals is that you aren’t limited to selecting a single data point at a time; you can select multiple marks to perform multi-member filtering, aggregation, and other actions. Marks can be selected a click at a time while holding down the control button (on PC) or you can click-hold-and-drag to select multiple marks in one gesture.

Figure 5. Select multiple marks on a dashboard

If an author has added analytics functionality, such as calculating an average or regression line on a scatter plot, multi-selecting mark will layer on a new line-of-best-fit using the subset.

In addition, you can perform the short-cut actions of excluding or keeping only the mark or marks you’ve selected. For example, if you’re interested in enrollment figures for only 3 of the colleges at an institution, you can select those marks and from the popup-menu click “keep only” to filter every other mark-type from the view.

View underlying data to double-check a value

If you’re a healthy skeptic, the phrase, “How did you calculate that number?” is likely a common refrain. Particularly for a new dashboard, nothing undermines value quicker than a result that can’t be readily explained. While tooltips provide one way to access a deeper level, or grain, of information, sometimes you really need to see what rows or records were used in a calculation. Fortunately, “view underlying data” allows you to access this information with a click.

Whether or not an end user has this capability is dictated by the role and permissions granted to them; don’t be surprised if in some cases you aren’t able to access this information (or see only summary information about a mark); this is often for privacy or security reasons.

Figure 6. Viewing underlying data for a selected mark on a dashboard.

Save a custom filtered view to save yourself time

If you’re viewing a Tableau dashboard as an authenticated, or logged-in user, you can save time in the future by pre-saving your filter selection(s) as a custom view. For example, if you are only interested in information for graduates from a particular program, make these selections once and save the custom view to load as your default on future visits. While this view is associated with your authenticated user, you can share it with other users by providing them a link or tagging them with a comment.

Figure 7. Saving a custom filtered view as your default saves time.

Explore maps interactively

Geographic maps have an additional set of capabilities that are worth describing. If enabled by an author, when you hover over a map you’ll see various search, zoom, pan, and selection options appear on the upper-left corner. Zoom and pan commands (which can be alternatively accessed, too) allow you to navigate around a map and narrow in with impressive detail to a particular area.

Another somewhat hidden feature: after selecting the radial tool, clicking and dragging, you can also display a radius distance tool for maps on a detailed enough scale.

Figure 8. Interacting with map visuals in Tableau

User Basics Beyond the Dashboard: What else you should know?

Beyond dashboard interactions there are a few pieces of information and workbook features to make the most of your time when using Tableau.

Tableau Visuals: How they are accessed and where they are saved

A common point of confusion to clear up about Tableau dashboards relates to where you’ll encounter them versus where they are actually saved. If using a web browser, you’re likely to come upon a Tableau visual in one of three ways:

1. An interactive visual is accessed using the Tableau Server/Online interface.

2. An interactive visual that is embedded into an existing website or webpage.

3. A static image of a dashboard has been published to a webpage

An interactive Tableau dashboard accessed via web browser is originally published, or saved, to a Tableau Server, Online or Public instance (see the next section on the default interface). If a Tableau dashboard is embedded into a web page — think institutional fact book page — you can imagine it a bit like a real-time feed to the original saved location of the dashboard. This is valuable because an embedded dashboard is essentially the original, interactive dashboard and may be configured to update with new data from a centralized location. In contrast, some web pages may appear to include an embedded Tableau visual that in reality is only a static image. If an update is needed a more manual process of replacing the static image with a new one is required. For example, all of the Tableau dashboard displayed on this page are static images. To update them, I would need to save new screenshots, upload to this site, and save.

As a viewing user, why is it important to understand the three approaches? Where you view a dashboard and how it has been published may determine the actions you are able to take, such as subscribing or commenting (see below). It can also be an indicator of the accuracy and timeliness of presented information.

In Figure 9, a Tableau dashboard is embedded into a fundraising event page. As new pledges are received, the dashboard values update in real-time when a viewer visits the site. In Figure 10, the same dashboard embedded in Figure 9 is accessed through the default Tableau Server interface where it is saved. While the visual is the same, notice the tool bar of additional options and actions that may be taken.

Figure 9. Example of a Tableau Viz embedded a donation campaign web page.
Figure 10. Same Tableau Viz from Figure 9 accessed through the default Tableau Server user interface

Navigate to different views in the Server Interface

If you’re accessing a Tableau visual via the Tableau Server interface (item 1 just described) it’s likely that this is just one of many content items you can securely access. Fortunately, you don’t need to build a copy-pasted list of dashboard URLs or browser bookmarks to keep yourself organized. Tableau Server comes with an out-of-the-box navigation interface to allow you to navigate organized content folders, favorite objects that you’ll need again, and discover new content with search and recommendation features. The structure and hierarchy will be familiar to anyone used to navigating file directories in Windows or Mac.

Figure 11. Example of the default Tableau Server User Interface

Add Comments to a View

Once you’ve learned the basics and started to explore dashboard it’s inevitable that you’ll find an insight to share or want to submit a change request to an author. The “Comments” feature on views is the easiest way to do this.

Comments do what you’d expect: allow you to add text about a visual or dashboard you’re viewing and interacting with. You can @mention another user or an entire group in your environment to send them an email and in-app notification, as well as include a snapshot of the particular way you may be viewing a viz. Find something that you have a question on? Want to send some feedback? Want additional permissions granted? Using comments is a quick way to communicate without swivel-chairing to another application and away from your current focus. And, now that Slack has joined the Salesforce family, you can integrate Tableau to send notifications to a Slack workspace.

Figure 12. Adding comments, mentioning a user, and attaching a snapshot of the view.

Share the direct link to a visual

Need to share a helpful dashboard with someone else? If your intended recipient is already a member of your Tableau Server or Online environment you have a few easy options under the Share menu bar item. You can enter in the username of another user (or multiple users) or copy the url link and paste in an email or chat message.

Keep in mind that just because someone receives a link to a Tableau view, they aren’t guaranteed access to it. If the recipient is not a user on Tableau Server or if permissions are set on the view or the underlying datasource to restrict access to certain users they will not be able to see the content.

Figure 13. Finding and sharing a dashboard link.

Receive view by email on a schedule

Rather than navigating to a dashboard via browser, would you prefer to have a regular snapshot of a view delivered to your inbox on a regular cadence? Perhaps you have a monthly meeting where you’d need an update on the status of a particular project. Subscriptions allow you to specify how frequently you’d like Tableau to generate a snapshot, link and, optionally, an attached pdf or image of a particular view and automatically deliver it to the email associated with your username. Depending on permissions, you may also receive emails setup by others.

A similar feature, Alerts, allow you to set the conditions on when an email is triggered to send.

Figure 14. Subscription setting options

Download a view to a static image or file

I get it. Sometimes you just need a static image of a dashboard to include in a printed document or PowerPoint presentation. The handy “Download” button provides you with the options you probably need. In addition to static image downloads, depending on permissions, you may also be able to download underlying data or the full workbook itself.

Figure 15. Dashboard download options.

Favorite a view

With a healthy and active Tableau Server or Online environment, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the volume of content you can access. Tableau provides a few solutions to help you find what you need, from a list of recently viewed content, to advanced search functionality, and even AI recommended content based on your usage patterns. Often, however, the simplest solution is the best and that’s what the favorite function provides.

As you’d guess, click the star icon on a dashboard or other content item to indicate you’d like to include it in your favorites list. Favorites are listed on your Tableau home screen, in a dropdown navigation menu, and in the Tableau Mobile App.

Figure 16. Favoriting a view.

Use Ask Data to Query the Data Set

If a dashboard author has built in the functionality of Ask Data, Tableau’s Natural Language Processing (NLP), as a viewer you can generate ad hoc visualizations that may extend beyond what is presented by default. Ask Data converts natural expressions (think browser search tool) into queries against a dashboard’s underlying dataset. Not all dashboards and datasets will have this functionality enabled, but look for an “Ask Data” icon to open the interface.

Figure 17. Example of using Ask Data for Ad Hoc querying in natural lanaguage.

Additional Resources to Get Started

I’ve covered the big items, but there is much more. I’ve listed a few resources below to help you take the next steps. But, like almost all things in Tableau, the best way to learn is to just start exploring, so I’d leave you with the final suggestion to simply start interacting with a Tableau viz — you’ll start to feel at home in no time!

Dan Bradley is a Principal Solution Engineer for Tableau’s Higher Education Field Education Team. Based in Chicago, he works with higher education institutions in the Central and mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. In addition to technology, Dan has a background in education administration, including an M.S. in Higher Education Administration and Policy. Dan's mission is to help the people of higher education become data-reflective practitioners who can see, understand, and act on their data. *Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer*

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