Tableau logoOutside of market research, when I talk to people about data visualization tools, the name that’s most likely to come up is Tableau.

Using technology developed at Stanford University, Tableau is a tool for uploading and visually analysing all kinds of data. There are some fantastic inbuilt visualizations in there which enable large volumes of data to be viewed attractively and in new ways. Their visual gallery is a great place to go for imaginative ideas. With a whole host of different graphic tools available to select and try out, this really is a product designed first and foremost with high quality, fresh attractive visualization in mind.

So what are the drawbacks? Firstly, a steep learning curve in terms of understanding how to use it with market research data. There’s a white paper which describes what you need to do to analyse multiple response questions, for example. It can all be done, but needs to be learned, so some of the stuff on the website about how intuitive the tool is doesn’t necessarily apply to your typical survey data.

Second, and for the same reason above, I don’t think it’s something that anyone can just pick up. It’s a powerful tool with a lot of functionality and the best way to get the most out of it is to have a small number of super users who are very familiar with it and can prepare dashboards for others. That doesn’t rule out its use by any means, but I can’t see it becoming as ubiquitous as PowerPoint, and it won’t necessarily get to be used on every project.

Third, the cost structure for online access may put some off. A one-off purchase of the essential Tableau Desktop is £1,200 with £200 per annum ongoing for upgrades and support. If you wanted to post a dashboard online, that means buying the Server or Online options. Online means purchasing a license of £300 per annum for everyone who needs to be able to access the dashboard. So if there are a large number of people within the client company who want to see the data (which you would hope there are) it can get expensive (although bulk rates are negotiable for 25 or more users).

An alternative is to provide the dashboard with Tableau Reader, which is free software a bit like Adobe Reader and will enable the user to view and analyse the dashboard for no charge. It does mean: a – it’s not online which is not considered as sexy, and b – users will have to download the reader software to see the dashboard, which adds a layer of complication.

In terms of using the visualizations elsewhere, Tableau is essentially a complete system in itself. You can download a visualization as a pdf or jpeg, but it’s just a flat image of the dashboard and isn’t going to look that great in itself. This may deter some, as the time spent setting up a research project in Tableau can’t really be written off against the time inevitably spent in parallel putting together something in PowerPoint covering the entirety of the results which can be taken straight into a presentation or emailed out as a pdf attachment.

For the right project, though, Tableau could work well. Say the client were a tech-savvy company within the digital sphere whose research users responded well to fantastic visualizations and aren’t phased by the need for simple additional software, and the research were an ongoing study with relevance across the organisation.

Or what if the client already uses Tableau? It would be a fantastic fillip in a research proposal to suggest working collaboratively with a client company in order to make the research available in the software the client is already using. Maybe this is something agencies should be asking their clients as part of a preparation for a research proposal.

I’m curious as to how many research agencies are using Tableau as a means of presenting results. There are all kinds of reference to survey/marketing analytics on the Tableau website, but none of them look like a survey results presentation to me. If anyone can enlighten me, do drop me a line.