Tao of Tableau - Deciphering Tables #1 - Simple Features

Tableau is extremely powerful, flexible, and easy to use for creating tables. Drag a measure into the pane, a dimension or two into the Rows and/or Columns, maybe double-click another measure, two, or three, and presto! voila! you have a nice table containing the measures' values sorted and organized according to the dimensions' members' default sorting.

Easy, nice, neat, and tidy.

Except that it's not quite so simple. Tableau has a particular philosophy about how tables should be decorated, and this isn't always exactly in tune with what many people expect. This post is the first in a series that examines Tableau's table layout schemes and provides some (hopefully) useful clarity to the whole endeavor, with guidelines for achieving the table presentations you need.

First up, the embedded Tableau Public-published workbook below shows a simple series of tables with the default Tableau presentation along with some notes on interesting aspects. As is pretty clear, for a simple set of very closely related tables there's quite a variety in their presentation.


  1. In my experience it is much simpler than what you have detailed out here. In my view there are only two default Border Divider formats. Here is how I look at it:

    With only discrete pills on either or both Row/Columns shelves, and only when there is a single discrete pill on the Columns shelf will the default Border Format change to None for the Column Divider.

    All other pill combinations (continuous and/or discrete) will be the default of Row/Column Divider Format set to line.

    Your Naked Viz is just and view that does not display any marks, either by filtering, or lack of pill placement.

    It is not suppressing elements in my opinion, it simply has no marks to display, so nothing is displayed. The image you included is a helper for users, not something that represents the WYSIWYG.

    1. Thanks, Joe.

      I have to disagree, though with the "2H Cell Table" missing table sides being simple. My next post covers this situation.

      As for "Naked viz", my point is that there's too large a discrepancy between the presentation of the Worksheet by itself and in the Dashboard.

      For those Worksheets without Rows and/or Columns to display Tableau doesn't display the "Drop field here" hints when the Worksheets are presented in Dashboards, but it does preserve the Table's framing lines.

      Dropping the framing lines for an empty Worksheet in a Dashboard creates a qualitatively different presentation from Tableau's normal model, and this is confusing, imposing upon the User the requirement to recognize and interpret this one particular oddity.

  2. I look forward to seeing an example that does not fit my theory, and I will gladly adjust if I am not correct.

    Yes there is a discrepancy between the presentation of the Worksheet by itself and in the Dashboard. It was designed intentionally that way. The purpose of the image in your above dashboard, what you see before placing pills on the worksheet, is a starting point, something better than a blank gray space. It answers the user's question "How Do I Get Started?".

    > "Dropping the framing lines for an empty Worksheet in a Dashboard"

    Tableau is not dropping any framing lines, no marks exists to display on the worksheet, and if no marks exist, there is nothing to display. The "Drop field here" image is just a place holder, not a real element of something that Tableau is drawing.

    When you see "Drop field here", that means there is nothing there. In an image editor application like Photoshop, when your delete the background and have a transparent image, you see a gray checkerboard to represent that there is nothing there, it is the same for Tableau, when you see "Drop field here", that means there is nothing there.

    The intention is to help, to encourage a user to place pills, but it seems to have caused confusion. What do think would be a better route to help answer the user's question "How Do I Get Started?"

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  4. I think we're coming at this from different directions, Joe.

    To my way of thinking, the simple fact that there are structurally different presentations in the Worksheet and Dashboard views of "Naked viz" is a problem.

    In the Worksheet view the User sees the framing lines (I call them that because they aren't proper Dividers, although they are visually identical to Dividers). In the Dashboard view these framing lines aren't there. So the User is faced with a "here you see me, here you don't" situation.

    I believe the cognitive dissonance outweighs any benefits. In fact, I can't see any benefit.

    I know that it's been designed that way. But that just means that the design is wrong and should be fixed.

    About the disappearing Column Dividers: it doesn't make any real sense why the level 1 (or leftmost on the slider) Column Dividers should be set to "None" in one particular configuration, particularly one that's extremely common given that common UI operations cause the Dividers to appear and disappear.

    Knowing the particulars of what causes this effect is good, and valuable in helping understand and correct for it, but again it's an imposition upon Users, a burden that they shouldn't have to bear.

    1. In regards to framing lines, what I hear you saying is that the current "Drop field here" is misleading because it exists on the Worksheet, but not on a Dashboard, and because they are visually similar to Row/Column Dividers, it causes confusion, is that correct?

      I can see how those factors can lead to confusion, and it becomes something that must be explained to a user because the Worksheet view is not a true WYSIWYG representation of what Tableau will draw on a Dashboard.

      The more that I think about it, that instead of answering the question "How Do I Get Started?", they are causing the user to ask, "how do I get rid of this?", or "why are these extra lines here?".

      How would you address the user experience question of "How Do I Get Started?" from a new blank Worksheet?

      In regards to the default Column Dividers set to None when only a single discrete pill on the Columns shelf, and only discrete pills (or none) on Rows shelf is a case of Tableau trying to use a "Smart Default".

      Tableau does a great many things automatically, or beyond the users direct control, this is Tableau's "Smart Defaults" in action.

      This setup of single discrete pill on the Columns shelf, and only discrete pills (or none) on Rows shelf is an arrangement commonly used for tables of numbers, eg the Measure Names pill on the Columns shelf, Measure Values on the Text, and discrete pills on the Rows shelf.

      I think this is a nice formatting default, and makes the table look nice, especially with a hierarchy of discrete pills on the Rows shelf.

      Zebra banding is another related formatting that looks like it is changing each time you place a discrete pill on the Rows shelf, but it really is not, the default is just a single header from the right side. So when you have just one discrete pill on the Rows shelf, the entire header is banded, but with two, banding is still only the right-most header.

      There are many, many examples like this in Tableau, it is both one of the reasons why I love to use Tableau, because it does a good thing automatically, and one of my greatest frustrations with the software, when it makes me click to undo what it did. It is a doubled-edged sword that cuts both ways. My hope is that Tableau does not go the route of Microsoft and use "Dumb Defaults".

      I can see how it can be upsetting that a single arrangement of pills causes a different format default.

      Wouldn't it be great if we could configure Tableau's "Smart Defaults" with our own logic or turn off the logic Tableau has in place? I have always wished to be able to configure the menu option Format->Workbook Theme.

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  7. My next reply grew too large and had to become its own post: here

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