My biggest passion as a researcher and evaluator is the communication of stories, whether that’s through data visualisation or through the art of impactful presentation. The work we do has the most value when it can enable positive change, and powerful communication supports this.
On the data visualisation side, I have worked with graphs and charts for years, and (still) style myself pretty good at making a slide deck. I had also spent time in previous roles working with researchers in user interface design for complex data visualisation, so I figured I was up to speed on the field. But a few years ago, when I was at business school studying data analytics, I had the good fortune to have coffee with a senior analytics director for a major U.S. retailer.
I asked them what the best tool or technique was to learn in order to make an impact in the analytics sector, expecting them to name a particular technique or emerging trend, such as AI. Instead, they told me to get a copy of a piece of software called Tableau and start learning – all the data and analysis techniques in the world were worth nothing if you couldn’t take those and communicate the results quickly and effectively.
That conversation sparked a journey of learning that changed the way I work with data, and recently resulted in me sitting and passing the Tableau Desktop Certified Associate exam, gaining an official certification in the data visualization space.
So what is Tableau?
In short, Tableau is a software platform for taking data from a variety of sources and turning that data into insights through visualisations and dashboards. It’s used for everything from formative data exploration and hypothesis testing, to delivering ongoing monitoring of complex systems. It (and similar platforms like PowerBI and QlikView) makes it possible for people to not only present insights into their data but also interact with and ask questions of it, enabling a more nuanced understanding.
As a result, I am a big fan of using visual analytics and dashboards to support the people we work with. A good dashboard doesn’t just present analysis – it’s interactive and enables people to answer their own questions intuitively and quickly. By doing this, the end user gains a better understanding of the data and a sense of ownership over the process, something that can lead to better decision making.
However, creating good dashboards in any platform requires a good eye for design and a sound understanding of how to wrangle data. The Tableau certification process tested me on these skills, giving me raw data and asking me to answer questions by creating charts and tables that explored that data. Getting to the right answer required me to not only understand the data and manipulate it using the right statistical calculations, but then to frame the results in such a way that it was clear to see what was important and useful.
I have been using Tableau for over five years now. In that time, I have used it to deliver positive transformations in organisations, whether by enabling better storytelling or by improving the speed at which decision makers can access insights – in one case my team reduced the time to deliver a monitoring report from three weeks to less than three days. I even use it to deliver reporting internally, doing away with written reports and slide decks. We’ve even taken an existing written report full of unstructured qualitative data and transformed it into an interactive dashboard that told the same story, but more clearly and quickly.
That’s part of the fun of working with platforms such as Tableau, it’s always exciting to be given new data and questions and figuring out how best to pull it all together into something that’s useful, intuitive and easy to understand. But the best part is when I sit with an end user and let them play with the dashboard. There’s a moment when they realise just how much more insight they can get, it’s like a lightbulb going on in their brain.
That’s when I know we’ve created something good.