Tableau Enhances Data Visualization Usability, Communication, Collaboration

Tableau 4.0's usability enhancements significantly lower the bar for entry to data visualization and make customizable end-user analysis easier to share

Data visualization specialist Tableau Software notched a few firsts recently, starting with its first-ever Tableau Customer Conference, held in Seattle.

Tableau also showcased its upcoming Tableau 4.0 release, which -- once it ships in next week -- will deliver updates for both Tableau Desktop (the end-user analysis component of Tableau's data visualization stack) and Tableau Server (its back-end counterpart that enable sharing). With organizations consuming more data -- at speeds approaching real-time -- Tableau says data visualization (in contrast to other, existing BI tools) lets users more meaningfully interact with data -- faster than ever before. It's in this respect, officials argue, that Tableau 4.0 and its raft of usability enhancements significantly lower the bar for entry to data viz.

Many vendors claim to deliver data visualization capabilities, but only a few, including Tableau along with competitors Advizor Solutions Inc., SAS Institute Inc. (with JUMP), Advanced Visual Systems (AVS), and the former SpotFire Inc. (which was acquired last year by Tibco Software) can be considered data visualization best-of-breeds. It's an important distinction, experts stress (see

Business Objects (an SAP company), Cognos (an IBM company), and Microsoft Corp. have upped the data visualization ante in recent revisions of their information analysis or performance management (PM) products. In turn, Tableau, Advizor, and other players keep raising the stakes, focusing on both the arcane (e.g., developing new algorithms and visualization-types) as well as the comparatively mundane (e.g., usability enhancements). Tableau 4.0, for example, is focused on usability: it boasts a new one-click analytical map-creation feature and bundles amenities which make it easier for users to embed and share Tableau views in non-Tableau contexts -- such as in Web applications, SharePoint, corporate intranets, or even documents.

Officials cite Tableau 4.0's one-click analytic map-generation feature as of particular interest to its users. The feature helps users create analytic maps without understanding map layers or geographic parameters; Tableau itself figures everything out, allowing users to drill down into the corresponding information.

Tableau 4.0 adds new visual cues in its drag-and-drop interface that help users decide how to interact with data (e.g., what and where to drag it).

Tableau has always supported maps and scatter plots, but stating in version 4.0 these tools can take the form of custom shapes, images, or logos. It might seem like a silly amenity, Tableau officials concede, but from a user's perspective it really can improve how information is communicated.

Similarly, Web-based users can now customize their views as well as customize or share their own data visualizations with colleagues.

In an intriguing twist, Tableau 4.0 now lets users sort through their work using either conventional file names (e.g., Monthly_AR_Summary_with _Outliers_and_Anomalies.doc), or by means of visual representations (that is, thumbnails).

Data Viz Specialists Sitting Pretty?

In the not-so-distant past, some Industry analysts questioned whether the data visualization space -- like the reporting and data integration spaces before it -- would inevitably become commoditized, with a number of larger vendors developing data visualization technologies that were "good enough" for most potential consumers.

Some suggest that data visualization itself is just too complicated -- too inherently best-of-breed -- to become commoditized (see

Tableau officials don't seem to be sweating the activities of their non-best-of-breed competitors. Tableau 4.0's usability enhancements should help blunt some of sharper attacks from Microsoft and other usability champs, but Tableau principals believe the industry is trending toward them, too.

At this spring's TDWI World Conference in Chicago, for example, Tableau veteran Kevin Brown talked up the rise of Big Fast Data -- highlighted by ceaseless disruption and innovation in the data warehousing (DW) appliance segment -- which he says plays to Tableau's strengths.

"We are delighted that the trend in data warehousing is big and fast and not too expensive. This whole trend toward big data being optimized for visualization, it's all toward our sweet spot. The more data [we can consume], the better. If you give us fast access to lots of data -- in this case, to terabytes of data -- we really get a chance to show what we can do," he said.

Brown, for the record, was very busy at TDWI's conference promoting a deal with DW appliance player Dataupia Inc. and wooing other appliance contenders (including Netezza and Teradata).

Facilitating fast access to enormous data reserves is just part of the problem, according to Brown. He raises the possibility of end-user-overload: of users trying to make sense of too much data, too rapidly, using conventional tools or models. That's where data visualization can really help, he points out. When you bring a visual metaphor to bear against the Big Fast Data problem, he argues, things start to come into focus.

"This whole data mart thing, I think [when you do this] it starts to go away. You'll string these boxes together in these [appliance] configurations -- it's going to make a lot of things happen that haven't happened before. It's going to give more people more access to more data, data that [using conventional tools] they aren't going to know what to do with. Therefore, we're going to be essential. Technologies like Tableau [i.e., data visualization technologies in general] do a great job at addressing these problems."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.