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Tableau announced their first feeder competition to their overwhelmingly popular Iron Viz competition on April 4, 2016, and I spent the first week studying past winners and the design / viz style of my favorite authors. Before even looking for data I really wanted to get a sense for what works well in the wild, and what it takes to be selected for the competition. Here are some of my personal findings, realizations, and opinions:

  • Design, attention to detail, and consistency are king
  • User engagement is vital
  • Humility is a necessity

After doing my Tableau soul searching, it was time to find some data. Food is global… there has to be many interesting and easy to find data sets right? Wrong. Here is a list of all the different data sets I tried to visualize before settling on international trade data:

All of those data sets had a geographic component, which I knew was something I wanted, but the data was either uninteresting or just not fitting my mental model for how I wanted my viz to look. I finally landed on international trade data from the Food and Agriculture Association.. little did I know I found their old data portal and only got data from 2010 and 2011 (oops). This data set had all the elements I was looking for: volume, variability, geography, mass appeal, and a tiny bit of comedy… did you know that the US got all of their asses from Canada in 2010 & 11, but sent asses to over 17 different countries???

The Process

Design, Attention To Detail, And Consistency

In my opinion, these are the top elements of a great Iron Viz entry. I wanted to acknowledge a few key people that are either Iron Viz veterans or played a key part in my design in regards to the topics listed above:

Design and attention to detail: Shine left no detail untouched in only 20 minutes, and crafted a beautiful Iron Viz winner in 2015. Think about that… 20 minutes and still time to adjust the fonts, align colors, annotate, and think about how the user would interact with the viz!

Attention to detail: In 2014, John Mathis spent valuable time creating error metrics on the fly with his Iron Viz winning Yelp viz.

Consistency: Who hasn’t seen Adam McCann’s Beatles Analysis? I always love Adam’s work and noticed a similarity in his design, he tends to use #F8F2E5 as his standard dashboard shading color. A small detail yes, but after looking at many of Adam’s dashboards I realized that the tan color really helps ease the strain on your eye and helps the rest of your painstaking color choices pop. A very small detail yes, but I truly do think even small amounts of consistency make a large amount of difference.

Design: Kelly Martin… enough said. I ALWAYS go to her profile first when trying to channel a solid design. Her designs are tops… we just are along for the ride. I didn’t borrow too much from Kelly this time, but her work gets me in the design state of mind.

Design: Bridget Winds Cogley recently blogged about minimalistic maps in Tableau, and I would be remissed if I didn’t give her a nod for her amazing map designs. The minimalist nature of the maps really allows our users to focus on the data, rather than country borders, names, and general clutter that can consume our map designs.

After spending hours of reviewing the methods of the best Tableau has to offer, I knew that I had to employ these methods in my viz, and all of my public and professional work going forward.

User Engagement

A viz is only as good as it’s utility to the user.

User engagement deals with the usability of your viz and all the elements mentioned above. I for one feel that an amazing design will force people to open your viz. Even if I don’t interact, I always click on the pretty pictures.

If you can successfully manage to get people to your viz, it’s then your job to enable interaction. I am guilty of this at work, but too many filters/parameters on a viz can be overwhelming. Looking through some of my favorite public work I found that my favorite pieces are the ones that put me in the data, the works that make me choose the direction of the analysis, and those that have a simple to use interface (maybe 1-3 selections).

For my viz I really just want the user to pick a food and then explore the analysis that it spits out. Really keen on the imports and exports of donkeys? Simply select Asses from the dropdown and see for yourself!



People are REALLY good at Tableau. People are so good at Tableau, that I bet Tableau is still surprised on a daily basis. Those same people are all going to be entering the Iron Viz competition, and you really need to accept the fact that there will be astonishing entries. I’m not saying this because I think mine is astonishing, I am saying this because you need to jump right in and give it a shot no matter what competition is in front of you. Yes, Zen Masters will be in the competition, but they are also some of the best people you will find and they will give you feedback immediately. I received almost immediate feedback from Matt Francis, Jeffrey Shaffer, and Peter Gilks… I was blown away by the support!! Prepare to be humbled by the amazing talent and support of this community!

I am always amazed at the amazing things the math wizards of the Tableau community can come up with. Keeping with the humility theme, I always think I know a good deal about Tableau and the things it can do until I see the work of Chris DeMartini. Chris’ great arc demo over at datablick is simply amazing, unimaginatively complex, and at the same time very easy to follow. I will never fully understand how fabricating thousands of marks and creating arcs works, but I am overly thankful for the great minds who make it possible for everyone else to employ their methods! My Iron Viz entry would not have been the same without the arcs on the map, and if I were to be selected for the competition, I think they might be what puts me over the edge. So for at least the fourth time, thank you Chris for giving the gift of arcs to the community!

The Viz

Click on the image to interact with the dashboard! Thank you for reading and enjoy!


Additional Acknowledgements

  • Matt Chambers: Iron Viz finalist and consistantly amazing viz designer with a great attention to detail
  • Anya A’Hearn: For making datablick a thing, which made the great arcs post a thing
  • Andy Kriebel: For enabling design inspiration through Makeover Monday
  • The greater Tableau Community: You won’t find better people anywhere!