Skip to the main content.

8 min read

What is Tableau? | Beginner's Guide to Key Features

What is Tableau? | Beginner's Guide to Key Features

Tableau is a powerful and intuitive data visualization software that has gained significant popularity in recent years. It allows users to quickly create visually appealing and interactive dashboards, reports, and charts using large datasets, making it an invaluable tool for business reporting and data analysis. In this overview, we will explore the ins and outs of Tableau, including its key components, use cases, advantages, and how it compares to other popular data tools like Excel and Microsoft Power BI.


Tableau Product Suite

Tableau offers a suite of products that cater to various aspects of data visualization and analysis, including

Tableau Desktop

Tableau Desktop is the primary tool for creating interactive data visualizations, reports, and dashboards. It provides a drag-and-drop interface that allows users to quickly create visually appealing charts and graphs without any coding knowledge. Users can connect to multiple data sources, blend and clean data, and even perform advanced business logic calculations using Tableau Desktop.

Tableau Desktop is the original flagship product of the Tableau suite and has largely spearheaded how data visualization tools have been built out today.  It is designed with a non-technical business user in mind with the click-and-drag interface and is also capable of technically sophisticated visualizations and calculations to get exactly what you need from the product.

Tableau Server

Tableau Server is an on-premise solution that allows organizations to host and manage their Tableau reporting environment. This provides control over security, integration, and customization while enabling users to access and collaborate on Tableau dashboards and reports through a web browser.

Tableau Server provides a lot of flexibility for organizations that want to take on the added management of hosting, infrastructure, and upgrades.  While Tableau Server offers more robust options for integrating into existing IT infrastructure, large enterprises or organizations within heavily regulated environments tend to choose Tableau Server.  Enter Tableau Cloud.

Tableau Cloud

Tableau Cloud, formerly known as Tableau Online, is a fully-hosted, cloud-based solution that enables organizations to access and analyze data without the need for on-premises infrastructure. It offers similar functionality to Tableau Server but eliminates the need for organizations to manage their own infrastructure.  Tableau Cloud is an easy plug-and-play solution for organizations of all sizes without the added overhead of administration.

With Tableau’s acquisition by Salesforce in 2019, there is an increasing focus on innovation and messaging for customers to move to Tableau Cloud - as Salesforce has the entirety of their ecosystem based in cloud applications as well.

Tableau Public

Tableau Public is a free platform for sharing and discovering interactive data visualizations created by Tableau users worldwide. It is an excellent resource for learning and inspiration, as well as showcasing one's data visualization skills to a broad audience.  Tableau Public’s Viz-of-the-Day is a great showcase to see what’s possible when using Tableau - just be mindful of publishing any content, as the data will be publicly accessible.

Tableau Prep

Tableau Prep is a data preparation tool that helps users clean, combine, and reshape data before visualizing it in Tableau. It offers an intuitive, visual interface for performing common data preparation tasks like filtering, aggregating, and merging data sources.  Tableau’s Prep’s focus is mainly built for business users as no SQL knowledge is required.  While it has the ability to handle complex data structures and cleansing operations, Tableau Prep is not intended as an enterprise-grade ETL (extract, transform, load) solution at scale.

Tableau Data Management

Tableau Data Management is an add-on that helps organizations ensure their data is accurate, up-to-date, and easily accessible. It includes features for data cataloging, data quality checks, and automated data updates for Tableau Prep workflows.  This can be an incredibly valuable add-on for organizations looking to organize data content better, understand data lineage (where data is being pulled from), and be able to schedule Tableau Prep flows to run without human intervention.

Ask Data

Tableau also provides ‘Ask Data’ capabilities within Tableau Server and Tableau Cloud to let users type questions in common language and get visualizations to answer with data.  The visualized answers are created automatically without necessarily understand the nuances of the data.


What is Tableau Used For?

Tableau is primarily used for:

  • Data visualization - Transform raw data into visually appealing and easy-to-understand charts, graphs, and maps
  • Business intelligence - Empower decision-makers with insights derived from data analysis to make informed decisions
  • Data analysis - Explore and analyze large datasets to uncover trends, patterns, and anomalies (all without requiring SQL)
  • Dashboard creation - Design interactive, real-time dashboards that provide an at-a-glance view of key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Operational reporting - Generate visually appealing reports that communicate data-driven insights effectively


Tableau vs. Excel: Key Differences

Although Excel is a widely-used spreadsheet application, Tableau offers several advantages when it comes to data visualization and analysis:

Tableau Advantages

Ease of use: Tableau's drag-and-drop interface allows users to create complex visualizations quickly and easily, even without coding knowledge.

Interactive visualizations: Tableau enables users to create interactive, dynamic visualizations that can be explored and manipulated by end-users.

Scalability: Tableau can handle large datasets more efficiently than Excel, making it a better choice for working with big data.

Collaboration: Tableau Server and Tableau Cloud facilitate collaboration, allowing teams to work together on dashboards and reports.

Excel Limitations

Static visualizations: Excel produces static charts and graphs, which lack the interactivity and dynamism of Tableau visualizations.

Limited scalability: Excel struggles with large datasets, leading to slow performance and limited analytical capabilities.

Less intuitive for visuals: Creating complex visualizations in Excel often requires advanced knowledge of formulas and chart customization, making it less accessible for non-technical users.

Collaboration challenges: Excel files need to be shared manually, increasing the risk of version control issues and making real-time collaboration difficult.


Tableau: Tool, Software, or Both?

Tableau is both a tool and a software suite. As a tool, it enables users to create data visualizations, dashboards, and reports. As a software suite, it encompasses a range of interconnected products, including Tableau Desktop, Tableau Server, Tableau Cloud, Tableau Public, Tableau Prep, and Tableau Data Management.


Learning Tableau

Is it difficult to learn Tableau?

Tableau is designed to be user-friendly, with a drag-and-drop interface that makes it accessible to users without coding experience. However, like any software, there is a learning curve involved. The difficulty of learning Tableau depends on the user's familiarity with data analysis concepts, as well as their willingness to explore and experiment with the software.

Does Tableau require coding knowledge?

No, Tableau does not require coding knowledge to create visualizations or perform basic data analysis. However, users with coding skills (e.g., SQL, R, or Python) can leverage their expertise to perform more advanced calculations and data transformations within Tableau.

While SQL is not required to use Tableau, having SQL knowledge can enhance the user's ability to work with data in Tableau. Users can write custom SQL queries to filter, join, or aggregate data before visualizing it in Tableau. Additionally, Tableau supports integrating with various SQL databases, allowing users to connect to and analyze data stored in these databases directly.

The original user design and intention of Tableau was to create an interface for business users to see and understand their data without having to directly write SQL code to make it happen.  With that said an understanding of SQL will only make you more proficient in how Tableau interacts with data behinds the scenes.

How do I start learning Tableau?

One of the best parts of Tableau is the passionate community that creates a ton of great content, active forums, and ongoing learning opportunities.  For starters, Tableau’s free training videos, tutorials, and educational webinars are a great spot to get started with bite-sized content - it’s how I started back in 2012.

There are several quality paid learning subscriptions through both popular content platforms (Coursera, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning) as well as customized classroom training packages delivered by Tableau Partners like DataDrive.  

For technical support, the Tableau forums are filled to the brim with questions to almost every question you can imagine if you find yourself stuck on an error or specific concept.  I recommend for new Tableau users to take a look at the following two community initiatives.

  • Makeover Monday - Focused around data visualization best practices by redesigning and reimagining how analysis can be put onto a dashboard based on an existing visualization or completely new datasets.   
  • Workout Wednesday - Focused on digging into more complex concepts like calculations, layouts, and other intermediate concepts to make Tableau create something incredible outside your standard training agenda.

Lastly, there is the vibrant Tableau community that often identifies as #DataFam.  Annually, Tableau recognizes Ambassadors and Visionaries, individuals who have contributed to the community above and beyond regarding education, content, and socializing of the tool. 


Why is Tableau So Popular?

Tableau's popularity can be attributed to several factors:

  • Ease of use: Tableau's intuitive drag-and-drop interface allows users to create visually appealing data visualizations quickly and without coding knowledge.
  • Interactivity: Tableau's dynamic, interactive visualizations empower users to explore and manipulate data easily.
  • Scalability: Tableau's ability to handle large datasets and perform complex calculations makes it a powerful tool for big data analysis.
  • Integration capabilities: Tableau can connect to various data sources, including databases, spreadsheets, and cloud-based platforms, enabling seamless data analysis across different systems.
  • Growing demand for data-driven insights: As businesses increasingly rely on data-driven decision-making, Tableau's ability to provide actionable insights has made it a popular choice for organizations of all sizes.

The best part of Tableau is that use cases exist across all industries for seeing and understanding data.

  • Sales & Marketing - Analyze customer data, track sales performance, and stay ahead of market trends
  • Finance - Monitor financial performance, analyze budgets (and what-if scenarios), and forecast revenue
  • Operations - Tracking internal KPIs, optimize supply chain and workforce processes
  • Human Resources - Find trends within demographic and employee data around turnover, retention, recruitment, and management performance


What is Tableau Not Good For?

Although Tableau excels in many areas, it may not be the best choice for certain tasks:

  • Advanced statistical analysis - Tableau is not designed to perform complex statistical tests or modeling over large data sets, but users do have the ability to directly integrate languages like R or Python for some data cleansing and statistical steps.
  • Data storage and management - Tableau is not a database management system and is not intended for storing or managing large volumes of data.  Tableau has the ability to extract (or snapshot) data from various sources, but this should not be seen or used as a replacement to a robust data warehouse.
  • Real-time data processing - While Tableau can handle near-real-time data, it is not the best choice for processing streaming data in real-time use cases.  It's best practice to clarify the needs of your end users to confirm the requirement of real-time data visibility.  Often times, 'near real-time' is more than enough.
  • Blast crosstab reporting - Tableau has the ability to build robust crosstab tables for analyzing row-level details within data sets, but Tableau is a data visualization tool first.  This means that large spreadsheet views can take longer to render vs. a spreadsheet-based technology like Microsoft Excel.

Tableau vs. Microsoft Power BI

Tableau continues to be in high demand due to the growing importance of data visualization and business intelligence. Tableau's ease of use, powerful analytics capabilities, and integration with various data sources make it a popular choice for organizations across industries. As the need for data-driven insights increases, demand for Tableau skills is expected to remain strong.

While both Tableau and Microsoft Power BI are popular data visualization and business intelligence tools, they have some differences:

  • Interface design: Tableau's interface focuses on the data visualization component and getting users into a flow state of analysis, whereas PowerBI emphasizes the underlying data model that leads into the visualizations.  How visualizations are created varies slightly (i.e. drag-and-drop vs. menu-driven), but both can accomplish similar outcomes.
  • Data handling capabilities: Tableau generally performs better with already structured data sets (that can be created in Tableau Prep) whereas PowerBI has tools like PowerQuery and PowerPivot built into the PowerBI application.  Both tools can accomplish working with large data sets when structured correctly.
  • Pricing: Power BI is generally considered more affordable than Tableau, especially when Microsoft licensing includes entry-level access to PowerBI.  When considering the total cost of ownership, both tools have different ways that pricing scales with large user bases that should be considered to make a fair comparison with your organization's unique needs.  It's critical to look beyond software list pricing.
  • Integration with Microsoft products: Power BI has (obviously) tight integration with other Microsoft products, like Excel and SharePoint, making it a more attractive choice for organizations heavily invested in the Microsoft ecosystem.  
  • Visualization capabilities: Tableau generally offers more flexibility in terms of visualization customization and is often seen as having a more polished visual look compared to Power BI.  With any analytics tool, the developer's skills and experience play the biggest factor in the final output.

Ultimately, the choice between Tableau and Power BI depends on the specific needs, budget, and existing infrastructure of the organization.


Putting a Tab-Bow on It

Tableau is a powerful and versatile data visualization and business intelligence tool that enables users to transform raw data into actionable insights. With its user-friendly interface and extensive features, Tableau has become a popular choice for organizations across industries. 

When considering Tableau as a tool for your organization, it is essential to evaluate its capabilities in relation to your specific needs and requirements. It’s smart to compare against other popular analytics tools to make the decision about the best data visualization solution for your organization - and the true cost of ownership beyond the license pricing.

Our experienced DataDrive team can attest that Tableau unlocks incredible data-driven results when deployed correctly.  By understanding its strengths and limitations, you can determine if Tableau is the right choice for your organization and make the most of its capabilities.


Take Tableau to the Next-Level

DataDrive is recognized as a Premier Tableau Partner (and Partner of the Year in 2022) for supporting organizations of all sizes with Tableau implementation, development, and ongoing support.  Reach out today to take your data to new heights!

Let's Talk Tableau


Tableau Pricing Demystified | True Cost of Your Tableau Investment

Tableau Pricing Demystified | True Cost of Your Tableau Investment

Updated with the August 2023 Tableau pricing changes The ability to efficiently visualize and analyze data is essential for businesses of all sizes,...

Read More
Top 8 Reasons Why Outsourced Data Services Grow Your Business

Top 8 Reasons Why Outsourced Data Services Grow Your Business

Data has ascended from mere information to a critical asset driving strategic decisions. For small to mid-market businesses, harnessing the power of...

Read More
Tableau Conference 2024 | Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

Tableau Conference 2024 | Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

The excitement is building as the Tableau community prepares for the annual data event of the year - the Tableau Conference! Having attended 8+...

Read More