How the EXCEL?!

How the EXCEL to do I trust this Tableau thing?

Let’s face it: change can be a bit like parachuting for the first time.  You jump off a helicopter with a backpack with some fabric on strings that you hope will open when you pull some other string.  Only crazy people do this.

Ma, Erik Erikson 101!
Ma, Erik Erikson 101!

For the rest of us with our feet firmly planted on the ground, we plod through life pretty even-keeled and only change when some rabbit-suited guy tells us we have to.  When it comes to change, we wonder if the rest of the world sees what we see or if we’re simply imagining warning bells for no good reason.  It seems like nonsense when we hear the world we know is ending.

The rabbit is real, kids!
The rabbit is real, kids!

When you come from The Excel World or SSRS, the numbers are all right there!  You can see every one and get down to it at a granular level, mostly through tables or “drilling down”.  Most of the time, the data is aggregated through a series of pivot tables and numbers and additional calcs to slice and dice as only an Excel Master can.  We’re used to whittling away at the data with a pocket knife.  It’s close, personal, and in our hands.  We practically can touch every row, filter to examine line by line, and include more tables than the Damascus Gate Restaurant.

We have proof.  We like proof.

Besides proof, we like details.  We like names, and people, and outliers.

We like carving something epic, because who else in the world can do it?  Yeah, we’re an outlier, too.  We got this.

Look familiar? Basic Excel dashboard frame.
Look familiar? Basic Excel dashboard frame. Table at bottom as PROOF!

We add filters and narratives and all sorts of charts and make sure we use every bit of space.  We have a lot of data to put on this, kids, and even more tables to support it.  We sketch these things out, sticky note, plan, and check off lists.  We have meetings, run this stuff by 30 people who shuffle through the first few pages, highlight 3 numbers, and go grab some more coffee.  Later, we find the thing under the coffee mug, a new ring of brown calling out the center of the document and a few splotches added to our charts.  This does not make our day.  It sure encompasses our week, but it’s not making this day any brighter.

Then, we get this new tool, the one that’s supposed to make our lives brighter.  It even has a fancy name: Tableau.  That sure sounds like table to me!  Maybe there’s hope with this, kids.  I can make a bunch of tables, do a few reports, and go about my day.  But, it’s not giving me the numbers I want.  And I can’t see the data like I could.  And, man, are these tables pretty plain compared to the awesome ones I make.  Nope, not too happy.

And you know what, I’ve been there.  I’ve been that Excel analyst struggling to make Tableau give me ONE, just ONE, number.  Why is this so hard?!

Excel works at the cell level: its name supports that impression, exCEL.  Calculations are done at the cell level.  Every cell is hand-whittled to the form it becomes.  It excels at the cell.

Now, Tableau, despite its false cognate to table, actually means dramatic picture.  Yeah, really.  It’s a dramatic change, alright, going to the whole picture versus the cell.  Not sure I like losing this control.  But, you see from above, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear.  And a change this big is like hopping of the plane with only a parachute.  You only know so high up if the landing will be smooth.  Kinda scary, right?

Fine, we’ll give this a go.  We’ll hop out the plane.

Mock Tableau Dashboard matching Excel Dashboards

I’m still going to keep my narrative.  I’m even going to move it to the top, because I don’t trust this thing to make sense to anyone.  It sure doesn’t to me.  I’ll put some filters there so I can get this thing to work properly.  That’ll get this view to change.  Now I gotta squeeze the rest of this in here, but, hey, I can make a pretty slick map!  I’ll even try an area chart because they don’t look half-bad either.  Alright, still not enjoying this, but some of this was okay.

The challenge, the one that triggers fear, is that my numbers are gone.  Some people recommend easing people into visualization, incrementing some visual tweaks into tables.  This is an option.  The challenge is that sometimes, people struggle to move beyond that.  Why?  Fear.  It’s not lack of skill, it’s the fear that people are doing funny things with numbers.

When you do data visualization, you’re interpreting the data.  You’re providing a synthesis, a lens, a view, and a facet.  What’s nice about Tableau is that when you don’t trust – and, often times in the beginning, you won’t – you still have answers.

Check it:

You can view the data.  And you can choose to let your end users do the same.  Do people still ask how you got that number?  Yes.  This seems to be what people do, regardless of if it’s in a spreadsheet, a table, or a dashboard.

How do you build trust?

  1. Understand what it is you’re trying to show.  This is one cut, one version, one facet of the truth.  Need more answers?  Open up web edit to your users, dole out some licenses, or sit side by side and understand what people are trying to do (all of these are parachute moves).
  2. Communicate it effectively.  Sure, titles, annotations, and all those things are one way.  But so is how you put it together.
    1. Simplify by taking things away.  This part is the hardest.  One of the worst exercises I ever did with interpreting was taking things away – certain signs, certain ways of signing, you name it.  Reduce, until you can reduce no more (apparently, this also works with cooking and cleaning – who knew?!).
    2. Play around with it.  Does it matter where things go?  Defend your choices.
    3. Experiment.  Try a “conventional version” then try a fully visual version.  Play around with the in-between.
  3. Play.  Find time or force the issue.  If you have a door, close it.  If you don’t, buy some cardboard and make a temporary one.  Bonus points if you make your own ceiling.  Give yourself a couple hours to do something off the wall.  Will it get shot down?  Probably.  But, you’re lighting the spark.  You’re getting people to think.  And that’s worth it.
  4. Keep trying and showing up.  You’ll get knocked down, but then you’ll get up again.  They’re never gonna keep you down (had to).

Happy vizzing.

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