Tableau: Beyond the Buzzword – Part 1

Tableau: Beyond the Buzzword – Part 1

Tableau Software has created a lot of buzz within many mid-to-large-size organizations.  These companies are looking to make the most of their ever-increasing data, knowing that gaining insights into their business is crucial to their ongoing success. These goals often bring attention to data visualization tools like Tableau. Although it has been around since early 2003, many companies still have a big question regarding Tableau: what is the business value and is it worth the money?

As an attendee of the BI Innovation Summit in Chicago this May, I had the chance to hear from many trailblazers within different industries on data strategy and using data to provide meaningful insight into business operations. Common amongst these leaders was the discussion about Tableau: all of the speakers at this event were either using Tableau somewhere in their corporation or had considered using it.

From this experience, I sought to analyze why Tableau is such a buzzword, what were some common pain points that Tableau users experience, and how someone might avoid some of these challenges in order to increase the value of Tableau within an organization.

Tableau Logo

First, why does everyone seem to be talking about Tableau? Tableau Desktop has changed the landscape of self-service business intelligence because it allows analysts without technical knowledge of SQL or reporting tools to create and design reports.  The expense is small for a single user-license, at only $1,000 [1]. After downloading and installing the software, an analyst can connect to an existing data source [2], such as an Excel spreadsheet or a database, and immediately begin designing visually appealing reports. The user interface is intuitive; the many available resources, including tutorials and forums provided on the Tableau website, allow a user to get up-to-speed on general capabilities of the tool in just about a day, compared to the learning curve for some new software that can take weeks or months.

Sample Tableau Visualizations
Figure 1: Sample Tableau Visualization

The standard chart colors and designs are modern and visually appealing, so a user does not necessarily need to know about UI/UX principles and best practices to develop reports. Altogether, these features allow an analyst to “wow” his or her peers and supervisors with new charts and dashboards, sometimes uncovering the questions, “So why aren’t the reports that the IT team is creating like this?” and, “Can we implement this enterprise-wide?”

To address those questions, some of the pain points expressed by organizations who have implemented Tableau should be considered. The first of those pain points is the monetary cost of an enterprise-wide implementation of Tableau for a mid-to-large-size company. Tableau is not known for being a low-cost product and can be quite costly to implement. The total cost of ownership for Tableau includes user licensing, server licensing, hardware, implementation, and maintenance costs. As a simple example, the cost of Tableau licenses can adds up quickly for a large organization:

Cost Compare
Figure 2: Tableau Pricing Model [3]

The estimated 5-year Total Cost of Ownership for Tableau user licenses alone is over $500,000, excluding the other costs mentioned above and any volume discounts that may be offered by Tableau. Including these additional resources can make a large-scale Tableau implementation an expensive project.

Beyond cost, users face other challenges with Tableau due to the stand-alone nature of the Desktop product. First, metrics can be created by the user, outside of the metrics governed by the organization. Comparatively, in an IT-designed report, these metrics would typically be standardized and signed-off on by the organization prior to business use through a data governance process. At the BI Innovation Summit, leaders expressed how this could sometimes lead to the use of non-standard metrics and multiple versions of the truth, causing real problems within an organization if not monitored. Next, data cleansing and ETL must happen outside of Tableau. A business user may waste time cleaning data in Excel or risk outliers skewing the visualizations. Finally, the best-looking graphs may not always tell the best story or allow users to draw accurate conclusions. For example, the popular US-map in Tableau may not be the best representation of sales revenue data, as volume may disguise otherwise concerning values. In this case, the analyst may overlook adjusting the chart for population or volume. This is just an example of how users may unknowingly make mistakes with an easy-to-use product.

Tableau's Mapping Features
Figure 3: Tableau’s Mapping Features

In summary, Tableau is a powerful self-service business intelligence tool that has been observed to have the following advantages and challenges:


Fortunately, these challenges can be anticipated and remedied. To discover how to avoid some of these common challenges and see an analysis on the value Tableau can provide, stay tuned for Tableau: Beyond the Buzzword – Part 2.

[1] Tableau pricing based on current model displayed on Tableau’s website as of June 2015, excluding any volume discounts.

[2]  Tableau Desktop Personal Edition allows connection to data stored in files, such as Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, and CSV files. For connection to other types of data sources, Tableau Desktop Professional Edition may be required. All connection types allowed for each product can be found on Tableau’s website.

[3]  Pricing based on current model displayed on Tableau’s website as of June 2015 for a named-user licensing model, excluding server, hardware, implementation, and maintenance costs, and any volume discounts.  For more information on the total cost of ownership for Tableau, contact a Tableau sales representative.

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