Data storytelling: creating Tableau vizzes that get noticed

James Young

James Young

Tableau may be easy to use, but bringing data to life takes more than a powerful tool—it takes knowing how to use that tool to tell a great story. With the right mix of Tableau know-how, curiosity, and ingenuity, anyone can make sense—beautiful sense—out of a complex set of data.

We use Tableau on the field and off, pulling inspiration from our clients and our lives outside of work. Recently the Tableau community’s taken notice, recognizing several of our team members with Viz of the Day honors.

For us, inspiration comes in many forms—from a Chicago football icon to the exploding video game market. Here’s an inside look at how Slalom’s Tableau team approaches data storytelling.

Da Bears

—Dan Montgomery, Chicago

Every year, my dad (a Bears’ season ticket holder) lets me pick out a Bears game to go to. I almost always pick a December game, because there’s nothing like wrapping yourself up in layers of clothes, drinking cocoa, and cheering for your team when every other rational person would rather be inside staying warm.

DanMontgomery_Bears

The game I picked was the Bears vs. the Cowboys, and also the retiring of Mike Ditka’s #89 within the Bears organization. Ditka was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Bears in the early 60s and a Super Bowl-winning coach for the Bears in 1985. Inspired by the approaching game and Ditka’s incredible career, I built a viz honoring this venerable Chicago icon.

The build took up the better part of a weekend, but was worth the effort to get it published before the game. The build process went through about 10 different worksheets before I narrowed it down to the 4 worksheets that made the final dashboards. The final dashboard demonstrates his prowess as a player and his winning streak as a coach, and using the Chicago Bears colors highlighted Ditka’s values from the rest of the pack. His best seasons as a tight end are on par with some of the best seasons of any tight end, both current and future hall of famers.

MikeDitkaDashboard

I love bringing my passion for data wherever I go, and have found that clients are just as passionate about their own data as I am about the Chicago Bears. When you can combine that passion with a powerful, yet very easy-to-use tool, you end up with insights that you may have never seen before.

Get more visualization tips for Dan on his blog, Data Psientist.

Console wars

Peter Gilks, New York

 Confession: I love video games. With the release of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, I thought it would be an ideal time to look back over the history of video consoles and see which ones sold the most, and which games on each console were the biggest hits. Here’s what I came up with:

ConsoleWarsDashboard

This dashboard shows you which video game consoles have sold the most units over the years. When you click on a console to filter the treemap, it reveals which video games have been the most successful for each system. Use the drop-down filter to sort consoles by units sold or year released.

With this viz, I tried to create a style and theme that would draw in the audience and encourage them to interact and spend time with the information. Sometimes the data alone can be ignored if the presentation doesn’t grab attention. I realized that this topic would make a lot of old gamers nostalgic, so I went for an 8 bit-looking theme and included pictures of each console to help bring back those memories.

For more tips from Peter, check out Paint by Numbers.

Viz touchdown

—Steven Carter, New York

We can all learn to play with Tableau and provide insights into our users’ data, but you need to take the time to speak to your audience before you can really take your visualizations to the next level. I recently tried to do that by visualizing two team’s epic 15-week journey to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.

A football field provided a natural backdrop to visualize critical 2013 stats. I wanted to keep the different stats on one worksheet to preserve my football field, but this created some problems. It didn’t make sense to show higher ranked teams (i.e., 1 is better than 25) at the bottom or lower total yards at the top. To fix the issue, I used a trick I picked up from Alan Smithee’s blog, Alan Smithee Presents. This easy-to-implement solution allows you to show or hide worksheets using a simple drop-down parameter, filters, and auto-resizing dashboard containers. I ended up using four different charts: one for stats, one for top 25 rankings, one for power rankings (1-126), and one for time of possession percentage. This allowed me to display four axes, each with a different format while still preserving the illusion of one field.

I was really happy with the look and functionality of the dashboard at this point, but it still needed a few visual elements to spice things up. For the title I used a collegiate style font that I converted to an image to avoid any issues publishing a custom font to Tableau Public. I also added the National Championship logo that acted as a link to the official game website. To complete the dashboard I added instructions on navigating the dashboard using a hover tooltip that provides the necessary information without taking away from its visual appeal.

VizTouchdownDashboard

Not all dashboards will be as dramatically themed as this one, but you can always find ways to make a viz speak specifically to your users. It may be as simple as using the colors of your client’s logo or as complex as recreating the look of a NASDAQ stock report to show KPI movement to your finance department. Whatever your situation, take the time to speak to your audience and you’ll have them calling for an encore.

What inspires your approach to data storytelling? Tell us in the comments.

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