What Are Your Go To Designs in Tableau?

Welcome to the Tessellation team chat. Inspired by one of our favorite segments at FiveThirtyEight, we are giving you a peek into the Tessellation Slack channel. This month we’re focusing on how we design and layout data visualizations in Tableau. 

Shaun (Shaun Davis, consultant): Thanks for joining our February team chat! Design is a key element to create a compelling visualization. We’re going to dig into everyone’s favorite chart types, design elements and a surprise question to close us out. Since chart types are the foundation of what we build, What is your go-to chart type and why?

Alex (Alex Christensen, co-founder and partner at Tessellation): Box and whiskers plots. I don’t think there is a better way of showing outliers more quickly. Dashboards need to call out where there needs to be action. Being able to see quickly what is over performing and underperforming can hone your analysis. Also, when box-and-whiskers are done in a small multiple context, it is a great way of comparing performance between groups, as you can easily compare median values and distribution (spread).

Luke (Luke Stanke, co-founder and partner at Tessellation, Current Tableau Zen Master): @Alex Always with the box-and-whiskers. I love it. And I know that we all learned it in High School, but I really think it’s probably too complex.

Alex: @Luke A dot plot with a couple reference lines or bands can do the trick and gives way more flexibility. You can add and remove to the audience’s taste to make sure it isn’t too complicated for them. Also – you have more formatting options, so you can make both the “whiskers” a little more subtle.

Spencer (Spencer Baucke, consultant and #SportsVizSunday co-leader): My go to is a bar chart. Classic answer, I know, but there are many slight variations you can make to have your bar charts seem fresh. Another big reason I like bar charts is people’s general comfort with them. Users generally already know how to read them and they aren’t scared to interact or ask questions about them.

Luke: Maybe the solution to @Alex’s box-and-whisker is the bar chart with a confidence line. Or maybe just a dot plot with a confidence line.

Aidan (Aidan Bramel, consultant): +1 for the classics! I, too, am a bar chart enthusiast, for the same reasons @Spencer listed. We all know how to read bar charts, so most users can look at a bar chart and immediately get a question answered.

John (John Emery, consultant): Bar charts — keep things simple. Too often you see people making radial charts, Sankey diagrams, or other fancy charts that look nice. Unfortunately, those charts often make analysis and conveying information more difficult.

Luke: In terms of versatility bar chart wins every time. Can technically be used for time series, parts of a whole, comparing snapshot values. Can sneak them into a table and still provide visual density if you prefer.

Spencer: My back up chart is the Cleveland Dot Plot. Vastly underused and underrated.

Shaun: @Spencer But you live in Cincy. Is there a Cincinatti chart type?

Spencer: @Shaun There’s not currently, but when it’s invented it will be much better.

Alicia (Alicia Bembenek, consultant): I was working with a Data Coach trainee this week and we were brainstorming about other chart options that she could use to communicate more effectively. I kept coming back to suggesting that she display the information in small multiples.

It’s just so much easier to make comparisons when you can see multiple categories at once, versus filtering to one category at a time. Storytelling with Data actually had a #SWDChallenge all about small multiples in January 2020, with some really great examples. There might even be an example with box and whisker plots @Alex!

Alex: Box and whiskers FOR THE WIN!

@Alicia reminded me of my second favorite chart, which is small multiple sparklines. Simple and effective for showing trends.

Alicia: @Alex Small multiples FOR THE WIN! 

Shaun: This question made me go check out my Tableau Public profile and reflect on my design choices (because data). Though maps are my favorite, for non-spatial data, I really like line charts. They’re not applicable for every situation, but they really allow you to see both magnitude (if you include 0) and trend. You can slim them down and use them as spark lines or small multiples. Using colors you can add tons of lines as context with a de-saturated and then focus your users on the most important pieces with more saturated colors. They’re a versatile chart type that you can use for most anything.

Nick (Nick Haylund, Tessellation EMEA director, Alteryx ACE):
BAN Chart— all day every day.

“Big Ass Numbers” mixed with some sparklines / comparison trends, is what my finance folks want to see.

🤑 Give me the # for this period

❓ How does it compare to another time frame

 🚦Add the color

⬆⬇Drop that symbol

🗣Chat/Learn/Make a decision about it.

Shaun: As designers we each have our own style and look.

What are your go to design elements? How do they help you tell a story?

Alex: Might sound overly simplistic, but KPI cards at the top of the dashboard. I like to show the key number, the change from last period, and a sparkline with no formatting to show trend. Repeat this for each of the key metrics. If everything looks good on the KPIs, close the dashboard. If they don’t, scroll down and see some of the insights and details.

John: @Alex I’ll echo KPIs. Virtually all of my client-facing designs have KPIs at the top of the dashboard, with supplemental details to follow.

Luke: @Alex is stealing my approach!!!

I’m going to ignore the obvious answer of: it depends. A bit of a cop-out so hopefully no one uses it. I think whitespace is the one thing that every great developer misses. It’s easy to throw components that tell a story. It’s another thing to get the design right so that people come back no matter how good or bad the story is!

Nick: Admitably, used to get a little * too* creative  with the design ( 👋colors on colors, donut charts and waterfalls), because I had no design background!

When I started working for a (then future) Zen, I quickly realized a “simple” design was the best design. Never looked back.

re: my favorite chart: BAN

Spencer: A couple of big design elements I focus on are font size and color and how they portray what is important in your dashboard. Using color to form themes throughout your dashboard can help guide users in following your story. Having your color legend as part of your story and not necessarily as a stand alone dashboard element goes a long way.

Alicia: Color is so impactful in design — for better or worse. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit in selecting a color palette and selecting which elements get which color. I’ll use brighter colors for the information that I want people to notice, and I’ll use greys for the information that is only there for context and comparison.

Another go-to I have is writing descriptive titles for the chart that embed the color legend into the words of the title. I’m pretty sure I learned that from Stephanie Evergreen. I think that is such a great tip to use the chart title to communicate the legend versus having a separate legend object!

Alex: Since we are talking about color, I personally like more muted colors. A good hack for that, if you like muted colors like me, is take a bold bright color pallet and change the transparency to 50%. Automatic muted color pallet.

Alicia: @Alex Oh, that is a good tip!

Shaun: + 1 colors!

Expanding it a bit to user experience, I use interactivity a lot. This can range from simple filter actions to refine your view to URL actions that link you to another system or website. I like adding these because they’re time and space savers. There are cases where you need parameters and filters, but I don’t like to sacrifice data space for user input. I prefer to add them to titles or use the collapsible containers.

Now that we’ve all agreed and complemented each other, let’s throw down….👊

Do you prefer a floating layout or fixed layout in Tableau? Why?

Alex: Floating. This is the hill I have decided to die on. You have so much more control when doing floating to make things pixel perfect. I literally have a notebook of all of the math on different sized dashboards so I can get things perfect and do so quickly. Also, since transparent backgrounds became a thing in Tableau, you can do some cool things by overlaying objects, and floating is your only option.





How do floating containers count?

Spencer: Fixed. Anything else is heresy.

Luke: We’ve never battled over that, have we @Spencer?!?

Spencer: Never 😉😂

Luke: INSERT COMMENT FROM @Baxter (Baxter Boe, co-founder and partner at Tessellation) ABOUT HOW FLOATING TEMPLATES ARE TERRIBLE FOR END USERS

Shaun: @Luke 🙄

Luke: Listen. I want layers and precision.

Spencer: @Luke Layers and precision without the ability to reproduce it on the client end is a moot point.

Luke: @Spencer I will concede that it’s now super easy to format visuals inside of containers. Where precision is not an issue. My issue is layering. What if you want to put your legend over a chart rather than around?

We’ve never done this, right?

Spencer: Do it in the titles box. Preferably legends shouldn’t be a stand alone item anyways, so include it in your text at some point. That’s how I would approach it. I wouldn’t sacrifice best practice for placement of a legend that I would argue shouldn’t be there anyways.

@Luke We’ve never done this before.

Luke:  not like this:

Spencer: @Luke If this is your design, you’re not planning to have any filters that might change the position of the bubbles because if you did then your legend might end up covering some of your bubbles. What is your argument against having a legend like CENTRAL | EAST | SOUTH | WEST in your text box?

Luke: @Spencer What if i want to use my legend to highlight values. I can’t do that with text.

Spencer: @Luke Great point! Text cannot highlight in that chart, but what you can do is create a sheet that serves are your title area. Then you can include the dimension values in your sheet and set a dashboard action to highlight. Also, create a highlight function within your plot above that which highlights all the other bubbles of that color. Again, I’d rather stick to the fixed than go to a floating layout because of a few outlier situations.

Shaun: @Spencer That seems like more work than just making it floating……

Spencer: @Shaun Yea right until your screen size shifts or they open the app on their phone and now your legend looks like the title of your whole viz.

Luke: @Spencer If mobile is a concern, how can Tableau or business prepare for mobile-ready data tools? Is mobile a fallacy?

Aidan: Hello just popping in as a neutral Belgium to say I almost always keep to fixed unless I need to float for the aforementioned layers. ^

Fixed until proven floated.

Luke: @Aidan Welcome to floating

Spencer: @Luke No way, she’s a fixer. I can tell. Don’t join the dark side @Aidan.

Aidan: Until Tableau comes up with an option that doesn’t ruin all of my spacing when I inevitably decide halfway through a public viz to increase or decrease my canvas size, i will never be firmly on any side

Spencer: @Aidan Confusion in you, I sense. (that was a Yoda reference)

Shaun: @Spencer Fixed is the path to the dark side. Fixed leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering through building a fixed dashboard.

Spencer: @Shaun Not if you fix it 😉

What I hear from my floating colleagues is, hey what about situation 123 or situation abc, and I agree, there are probably some situations out there that require floating. If you want to float in those instances, float your floating heart away. BUT, what I am stating is that when you look at the whole of the distribution in development scenarios, I am confident that fixing will be the better, more efficient, and practical way to go.


Alicia: Wow. A lot to take in here. I told @Shaun that if he asked the floating versus fixed question that things could get heated. 

Alex: So, I think I should clarify my first comment. Things can and should be tiled within a container. Being able to “distribute evenly” is a god-send. That said, all my containers and un-contained objects are floating. Try to make this Nickelback Viz without floating:

Fun fact – I accidentally DM’d  Chad Kroeger (lead singer of Nickelback) this viz on twitter

Fun fact – I accidentally DM’d  Chad Kroeger (lead singer of Nickelback) this viz on twitter


So I’m with @Aidan. I prefer fixed because I’ve found that the fixed objects are more likely to stay in place when I publish. But there’s definitely times when I’ll float some of the objects in a mostly fixed dashboard because that’s the fastest way to get the design I’m going for.

For business!? Tiled. ✌🎤

Public? Trick question. Experiment! 🔬🧪🧬🦠

John:  @Nick I totally agree with that. I can build a tiled dashboard that looks good with much less effort than if everything was floating.

Luke: To me, tiled is great for business tools but you have to invest a ton of time getting the headers, footers, and supplementary content formatted and floating just allows you to input 4 values per element rather than having to condition your values on other values.

John: The answer, of course, is “it depends.” Generally, I use a fixed container layout, but there are absolutely times, as @Luke has pointed out, that require floating elements.

When I’m designing client-facing dashboards, they are almost exclusively fixed, with floating elements as needed. However, some of my personal dashboards have been almost entirely floating. It really comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish, since fixed containers won’t necessarily give you the flexibility that you need.

Shaun: A Haiku on Floating Layouts

Fixed layouts are the worst

Why can’t I set them just right?

Floating leads to peace

Floating is the only way. I’m scared to think of how much time I’ve spent resizing text boxes to align just right with the chart next to it. Sure I can use “Edit Height / Width” and get it closer, but it’s always 1 or 2 pixels off. WHYYYYY? Floating allows you to build the widgets and then resize them to the exact size you need. Why spend your time dragging them around, when you can set the size exactly right?

Tiled works great when you have a small number of sheets and formatting that’s straightforward. Anything more complex, even in the business context is hard to pull off well.

Are you more float or tile? Chime in on the conversations at @AskTessellation.

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