Text tables have their place. We see them in places we don’t even realize—displaying movie times, prices on a menu, store catalogs, sports scores, reference tables, or even a phone list. Also, consider that Tableau actually lists the text table in the Show Me tab as the very first chart type.
Stephen Few sums this up very well in The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction: “This table does two things extremely well: it expresses these sales values precisely and it provides an efficient means to look up values for a particular region and month.” That’s what text tables are really good for—a list of precise values that can be looked up.
He also explains what a text table does not do well—seeing trends and patterns in the data: “What these numbers could not communicate when presented as text in a table, which our brains interpret through the use of verbal processing, becomes visible and understandable when communicated visually. This is the power of data visualization.”
If formatted correctly and used in the right context, then there is no reason that text tables can’t be included in the data visualization toolbox. Like so many chart types in the field of data visualization, text tables, when formatted poorly or used in the wrong context, can obscure things in the data and bombard the reader with too much information at the wrong level of detail.
You might also consider offering the reader both a chart and a table. This allows the reader to see the trends in the data, but have the details if they need them. Microsoft Excel calls this a “data table” that can be shown below the chart, but this can also be done in Tableau simply by putting two worksheets together for the same result.
In the example below, we can easily see the fourth-quarter trend of sales or the second-quarter dip in 2011 for technology. But we can also look up the exact sales numbers in any quarter for any category without cluttering the chart with data labels or axis labels.
Do you use text tables as part of your workflow? Have design tips to share? Let us know in the comments below.
For more tips, ideas, and vizzes by Jeffrey Shaffer, check out his Tableau Public page and his blog. You can also connect with him on Twitter @HighVizAbility.