I often spend hours—days, sometimes—formatting a dashboard to death. The end result is mostly something I am proud of, but when I look back at some of the hoops I have jumped through, I question whether they were worth it. If something took two hours to implement and only made a tiny improvement to my dashboard, was it worth it?

In fact, is it worth changing any of the default formats in Tableau? Quite often, the answer is no. Tableau’s defaults are perfectly functional. (I covered this in more detail in my previous blog post "Are Our Defaults at Fault?")

In this post, I want to explore how you can choose which design changes you should implement.

Here at Tableau, we ran an internal viz design competition using US road fatality data. My entry is the viz above.

Being the competitive type, I went all out to put in every design trick I could think of. I identified 30 conscious design decisions to alter the unformatted Tableau dashboard. I scored them based on the impact on the end result and the difficulty in implementing (based on time or complexity).

Below is the result of that scoring process. You can see four quadrants. Each mark is a design/format choice. (You can click each link to go see an explanation on my blog, Gravy Anecdote.)

My scoring is very subjective. I’d love your thoughts. Would you have scored them differently? What design choices do you make, and how would you score them?

How can you apply this kind of model to your own work?

Without a doubt you should do the low difficulty/high impact type of change. After that, as with all things, it depends (discussed in detail on my Huffington Post column). It depends...

  • on how much time you have. If you’re time-poor, do the easiest to implement.
  • on what you’re building the dashboard for. If it’s for a very prominent place, go the whole distance. If you’re building to enter a competition or to learn more about Tableau, do all hard ones. If it’s to share internally with colleagues, maybe you only need to do a few.
  • on your motivation. Seriously, if you just want to get the job done and go with something that is PERFECTLY FUNCTIONAL, just leave everything at its default. No one is saying you should change anything if the original option works!
  • on the order in which they come to your mind. Design is an art. Some things will strike you as important and necessary, however easy or hard they are. I cannot tell you what they are. My dashboard emerged a little like a painting. I didn’t know what the end result would be, and I didn’t quantify the design choices before I made the dashboard. They all emerged rather organically. Part of this is experience. I’ve done quite a lot of these, so I know whether they’ll be worth implementing.

For reference, here’s the full list of posts and features:

Low-Impact, Hard to Do

There are endless different design choices you can make to enhance and improve your visualizations, only a few of which I’ve covered here. I hope I've helped you think about how can you apply this kind of model to your own work.



I really like this article. Excellent work.

I learned a long time ago, probably by 2010, that the standard Tableau settings are very, very good. In fact, last week, I told a class that I was teaching that my dashboards are simply designed to tell the story of the data.

I don't get hung-up on creating artistic masterpieces (mostly because I don't have the talent to do it like Kelly, Jewel, Anya, Adam or others). I'm most efficient when I let the brilliance of Tableau tell the story, and that is a pretty easy thing to do if you use the software as it is designed to be used.

The Tableau development teams have determined the visual best practices and all I have to do is plug in the data. Changing colors, adding reference lines, and changing formats for various forms of projection is about as far as I go with customization. This is because I want to achieve maximum impact while minimizing my time spent on developing the viz.

I really like how you quantified this aspect of using Tableau. I want to study what you are saying and see how they agree with my experience. Very cool work and thanks for sharing. I think this is one of the most practical and important Tableau articles I have seen in a while.


Excellent article! The fact that Tableau comes with so much visual practice to begin with, really forces you to think about the value of putting in extra tweaking and customization. I like that it enables you to spend your time and considerations on this part of the design process instead of using half your time battling a plethora of poor defaults in the product.

Your posts are always brilliant!! You share a lot of good ideas. Thanks you so much

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