Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Tableau Design Month - Tooltips

Tableau Public are rocking an excellent set of articles by some of the world's top users of the tool about how they design their visualisations to be the most powerful they can be.

Here's my thoughts on why Tooltips have been missed from this lost so far.

So why is something that is hidden important to design? 

Simply, de-cluttering a visualisation makes it appear more appealing, seem more accessible and in a time-pressured world, quicker to take in for a busy reader. The tool tip can hide a large amount of added detail and that detail can be really powerful to re-enforce the message of the viz. So how exactly would I use this in practice? Also, Tableau 8 allows the user to add additional information in to the tooltip without affecting the visualisation making it even more informative.

Helping tell the story
In the early days of my Tableau journey, I had Tableau’s own Andy Cotgreave present at a user community session showing some hints and tips (you’ll see a theme in this article). He showed me something that just made sense – restructure the tooltip to tell the story of what the user is looking at. The tooltip is the greatest help function on Tableau as it the most user intuitive way to offer the reader help. If a reader wants to explore something more closely, they are likely to move their mouse to that point. And this causes the tooltip to pop up – so why not use that action to tell the story in more depth? For example, what tells the user more, and in the clearest way?


A simple bit of reordering the tooltip allows you to control what the reader will take from the visualisation and clarifies the point. A further design tip from Peter Gilks would be to remove the command buttons in the tooltip to stop a user accidently excluding values, and cleaning the tooltip up all at the same time.

Helping the less experienced user
Not everyone is a Tableau Zen Master or a Tableau-a-holic. For many readers, who might be even first time tableau dashboard readers or only looked at a couple of vizes before, you need to be able to show them what to do without filling the visualisation full of instruction. For most people who know to click on a dropdown parameter box or quick filter it’s pointless aiding over-explanatory descriptions to your visualisation. So how do you find the balance? This for me is where tooltips can be used to help the reader by creating a help button – Jewel Loree demoed the technique in the Tableau Quick Tips and Tricks at the Customer Conference this year and showed the example before (which hit a grand total of a million hits - so lots of new users!). Check out the '? How to use this Map' button...

By using an image as a shape, a tooltip appears when it is hovered over by the mouse. The tooltip tells the reader everything they need to use the viz and get the upmost from it. Genius and clean from a design perspective! 

There are a lot more things that smarter people than I have written about on the Tableau help forums, or in their own blogs. Go and explore and if you find something you like then add it to the comments below.

Happy visualising one-and-all! 


  1. Nice post. Couldn't agree more about the effectiveness of tooltips for providing additional detail on demand and to get users to engage with a viz.

    BUT, Tableau's implementation could be improved. Here is a comparison of Google Charts and Tableau: http://jimw.me/tabtiptest


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  2. The map is based on such detailed data, perfect

  3. Thanks Jim - I will check out the post. And Russian Sphinx - Jewel's map is excellent in showing a great level of detail really clearly.

  4. Interesting points Conrad. I still believe the second is more beneficial to the visualisation due to it helping new users really interpret the chart / dashboard well. I take your point about being harder work and I will definitely think more about formatting the sentence but think this way makes complex data a lot easier to understand.

    Glad we both agree about the command buttons!

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