Viz Musings · June 9, 2022 0

An inconvenient truth: Tableau is not a swiss army knife

A swiss army knife, with all the tools exposed.
Tableau is not one of these!

Now, I bloody love Tableau. It’s changed my life over recent years. Because of it I have made some great friends, traveled the world, presented in front of hundreds of people, and made my working life more enjoyable. I think it’s one of the best bits of software I’ve ever used, but we need to face this inconvenient truth.

Tableau is NOT a swiss army knife. 

There I said it. And the sooner we all realise this the better off we will be. How many times have you been asked to recreate something in Excel or produce something so hard to do in Tableau that it’s taken you days longer than it would have been to use a different bit of software? We must be better at asking ourselves this one simple question

Is it the right tool for the job?

Of course, the answer to this question is never yes, or no. The only correct answer to this question is “It depends”. Consider the humble nail. 

A grey round wire nail
The humble nail, used for nailing things

There are a thousand cases when using a nail is absolutely the right tool to use, cheap, quick, and readily available. Doesn’t need anything fancy prep, doesn’t need instructions. You just hit it hard with something, preferably a hammer. However, a nail is not good if you want to be able to remove it, sure you can lever it out, but it’s a pain. If you want to be able to fix something together, but then also take it apart you need something else, the correct fixing for the job. Behold, the screw.

a shiny metal screw
A screw, used for screwing things

He’s a little fancier than his brother, with his twist and slot or a cross on the top. And requires a little more preparation. You might have to drill a pilot hole, counter sink it and find the correct type of screwdriver. The advantage of the screw is that removing it is just a case of a twist of the wrist. No muss no fuss. 

So what has this got to do with our favourite data viz tool? 

Yeah, I was getting to that. 
Well if we combine the hammer and nail it’s like a match made in heaven. We can knock those little fellas into whatever we like with a swift tap to the head. On the other hand, with a screwdriver in our hand, we feel like a god, driving those helical shards of metal into our two bits of wood, joining that which must be one. And all is right in the world. 

And this relates to Tableau how?

In every situation we have to ask ourselves am I using the right tool for the job? I am spending my precious time in the most productive manner? Am I  swimming against the tide? 

A hammer being used to hammer in a screw
This is not the correct combination

Trying to use a hammer to bang in a screw is a frustrating experience. Likewise, if you have ever tried to screw in a nail you know it’s just not going to go well. So it’s the same with Tableau. There are some occasions when Tableau is the best fit for the data that you have and the viz you want or have been asked to produce. But there are going to be times when Tableau just isn’t the tool you should use. Tableau is a data viz tool, that’s all it is. It’s not an ETL tool. It’s not a spreadsheet. It’s not a project planning tool. Sure you can do some of that stuff in it, with a lot of work. But really is that the best use of your time? I’ve had numerous occasions when people have asked me to build something in Tableau that they can do in another tool. And I have spent so long trying to come up with something, that really wasn’t that great. What I should have done was say, No, Tableau isn’t the right tool for that. 
Don’t spend your time fighting against Tableau and trying to get it to do something it’s just not designed to do. Use its strengths to your advantage, Don’t get frustrated with what you can’t do. Enjoy what you can do with it instead.