Sunday, October 25, 2015

10 Steps to Winning the Tableau Iron Viz Championship

If you are reading this blog post, I assume you already know about the Tableau Iron Viz Championship. If not, check out the Tableau blog post about the 2015 Iron Viz Championship first.

I have summarized the most important steps to winning the Iron Viz Championship here. These steps worked for me, but I cannot guarantee they will work for you. You are unique and you need to discover for yourself what makes you shine. In any case, I hope these steps will be useful on your quest for the next Iron Viz Championship.

Most of these steps deserve blog posts of their own, so I think I have my work cut out for the next few weekends. Let me know via Twitter (@vizshine) what step # you would like to hear most about first and I can prioritize.

#1 Learn the Principles of Data Visualization

Data visualization is a rich, diverse and ever-growing field. This step is really a life-long one, if you want to continue to build your skills. It is critical that you start with a solid foundation of data visualization principles. You can learn from a variety of sources. For example, you could study books by renowned authors, read blog posts by Tableau Zen Masters, answer questions on the Tableau Forums, engage with the Tableau Community on Twitter and watch videos from data visualization conferences.

#2 Win an Iron Viz Qualifier Contest

Participating in an Iron Viz Qualifier contest is a pre-requisite to competing in the Iron Viz Championship. You need to win one of the feeder contests before you earn the right to be on stage. You must follow the Tableau Public Blog to ensure you find out about the feeder contest on time. The Tableau Public team announces these contests around March, May and July. You will learn a ton by just challenging yourself to participate in at least one of these contests. I have been using Tableau for five years now, but always put off participating in these feeder contests until earlier this year. Do not procrastinate!

The dashboard that got me to the Iron Viz Finals (click to view)

#3 Build up your Tableau Public Portfolio (and Confidence)

The feeder contests can be quite grueling. I do not envy the judges at Tableau who pick a winner from among the amazing entries received every year. If you do get selected, take some time to jump for joy, pump your fists, smile like the Cheshire cat… whatever you do when you experience the heights of happiness, since you earned it and you now have the opportunity to showcase your skills to the world. Practice with public data, build some beautiful visualizations and publish to Tableau Public. Hopefully some of your dashboards are worthy of “Viz of the Day” or “Viz of the Week”.

My Tableau Public page (click to view)

#4 Explore the Iron Viz Dataset

Then you wait and wait in anticipation of the Iron Viz dataset that you receive a few days in advance of the conference. Once you receive the dataset, your critical task is to find a story to tell. Finding the right story can be a difficult task. You need to consider a number of factors like what angles are most interesting, what will appeal to a large audience, what will balance the tastes of the judges, what will perform well. My first step was to explore every field in the GDELT dataset I received in Tableau including the hidden fields. I also looked at the data dictionaries available online that explained what each field in the dataset contained. You can also find inspiration outside of the dataset, so I searched for the big news stories from 2014 to confirm what I was finding in the data.

#5 Design your Iron Viz Dashboard

Once you finalize your story, you go to the drawing board and start sketching out various concepts of what your dashboard should look like. I like to use traditional pen and paper to play around with various ideas until I settle on a few designs to build in Tableau. I went with a newspaper-style design with an Old English font for the dashboard title, so the audience could easily realize that they were looking at a dashboard about news. I went with traditional chart types that our brains are primed to read easily and shades of gray to stay consistent with the newspaper theme.

#6 Build your Iron Viz Dashboard

Once you have settled on an initial design, start building out each component in Tableau. List out all the steps it takes to build out your viz. Time yourself as you build the whole dashboard. What is taking the most time? Where can you optimize? Formatting can take more time than you think. Set up all your formatting on one sheet and then duplicate that sheet multiple times, so you do not have to keep formatting every sheet. I spent the first five minutes of my time at the Iron Viz Championship setting up the data sources and the formatting (fonts, borders, titles, gridlines, annotations) saving me time at the end.

The dashboard I built at the Iron Viz Championship Arena (click to view)

#7 Share your Story / Believe in Yourself

Building your dashboard is only half the work. The other half is telling a story about your dashboard. Help your audience understand why they should care about it and how they should use it. We all love great stories. Your story can take your dashboard from good to great. There were times when I felt my dashboard was too simple and was tempted to add more. Then I remembered how Professor Hans Rosling presents a simple bubble chart in what is now one of the most popular TED talks. The story and the way you present it is as important as your dashboard itself. Most importantly, it should be a story you truly believe in, else do not expect your audience to believe in it either.

#8 Connect with People / Get Inspired by the Keynotes

When you qualify for the Iron Viz finals, you also get a free Tableau Conference pass. Make the most of it! Meet the people that matter to you. This was my first conference, and I was so eager to meet all the amazing people I knew from the Tableau Twitter Community and the Tableau Forums. I attended the Keynotes and the sessions by the Tableau Zen Masters. I also got to meet my awesome Sous Vizzer Charles Vaughn in person. He was a great ally and played a key role in complementing my storytelling on stage. He even rocked a bow tie a la Alton Brown of Iron Chef fame. The Keynote by Daniel Pink was inspirational, and I ended using a quote by him on empathy in my Iron Viz presentation. I also saw how the Keynote speakers like Neil deGrasse Tyson interacted with the huge audience, and made it feel they were talking directly to me. I tried to do the same during my presentation as well, and I loved the response from the audience. They want you to succeed, so see them as a friend to whom you are telling an interesting story.

#9 Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

Iron Viz contestants may make building beautiful dashboards on stage in twenty minutes look easy. However, the fact is you cannot do that without practice. As you practice, you may make mistakes along the way. The key is to learn how to recover from them quickly. Time yourself. Figure out what are the absolute essential parts of your dashboard and what features are nice to have. For example, in my case, if I were running out of time, I would have done away with the tooltips, or the “Editor-in-Chief” note at the top. Leave at least a couple of minutes at the end to test out what you plan to show the audience.

A View of the MGM Grand Garden Arena during my Iron Viz Rehearsal

#10 Perform in the Iron Viz Arena

The big day is finally here. You are in the limelight in front of an audience of thousands. The world is watching online and ready to vote for you. All the effort that you put in will finally bear fruit today. Keep you calm and do everything that you practiced. Your fingers may seem fatter than usual as you type. Your heart may seem to be racing faster than usual. The big timer may seem to be counting down faster than you ever imagined. Just keep your calm, build your dashboard and tell your story. The judges like your design choices, your use of visualization best practices and your attention to detail. The audience is rooting for you. The winner is announced. And the winner is… YOU! Congratulations… now write a blog post about your experiences.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

My Tableau Iron Viz Submission

I have been a Tableau user for over four years now. While I have always wanted to participate in the Tableau Iron Viz contests, this is the first time that I actually got around to submitting an entry. The dashboard I created is stylistically different from the usual dashboards I create. In this blog post, I will describe the process I used to create the dashboard along with some insights into the design decisions I made.

Iron Viz 2015 Wikipedia Guide to French Impressionists by Shine Pulikathara

Click the image to view the interactive dashboard.

Here are the key steps I followed to get from the initial idea to the final dashboard:

1. Select a Topic
2. Gather the Data
3. Design Wireframes
4. Explore in Tableau
5. Format the Dashboard
6. Add Interactivity
7. Publish, Review, Refine

Select a Topic

This was probably the toughest part. The theme for the first Iron Viz Contest is Wikipedia. As you know, Wikipedia has all sorts of data on practically every topic under the sun. I was looking for topics that could make an interesting story and had a good blend of qualitative / quantitative data. Finally, I wanted to pick a topic that was close to my heart in terms of my interests, so I would stay focused throughout the project. I have always been interested in Art, and I love painting and drawing. I decided to create a dashboard dedicated to the French Impressionist Artists. Their artwork has always amazed me, and this was a great opportunity to learn more about them.

Gather the Data

Naturally, I started with the Wikipedia page on French Impressionist Artists. I looked through the profiles of all of the artists. I decided to focus on the most prominent artists in the group based on whether they had a profile picture and biographical data as well as a gallery of paintings. This narrowed the list down to 18 artists. I decided to add Manet to the list. Even though he did not consider himself as an Impressionist, he was definitely a great friend and inspiration for many of the Impressionists. I was able to use OutWit Hub to scrape some of the links and data from the pages. There was also some manual work to gather the data (thanks to my wife for helping with this as well!). I had to do some additional work to clean the city names and geocode them using Google Maps. In addition, each Wikipedia page has a View History tab that houses several metrics about the pages including Total Revisions, Total Editors, Page View Statistics, etc. I thought since this was a contest focused on Wikipedia, it would be a good idea to use these metrics as a measure of the modern-day popularity of these artists.

Design the Wireframes

The next step was to go to the drawing board and think about options for representing this wealth of data in a cohesive dashboard. I experimented with several layouts (using the old-school approach - pen and paper) and finally settled on a dashboard with three sections: Historical Background, Modern-day Popularity and Artist Profile. The historical background would be a Gantt chart showing mapping the lifetimes of each of the artists, accompanied by a map of places of birth/death. The Popularity section would include a scatter plot and a bar chart allowing users to analyze correlations between the various Wiki metrics as well as identify the most popular artists. The Artist Profile section would include links to their profile picture, selected works of art as well as their wiki page (though based on feedback from my friends and colleagues, I later replaced this with the thumbnail gallery and used the Web Page object for audio instead).

Explore in Tableau

Once I was satisfied with the design, I moved on to exploring the data further in Tableau. I was able to translate my ideas into visual charts in Tableau quickly. I had to experiment a little with how to display thumbnail images pulled directly from Wikipedia in the Web Page dashboard object. Once I created the individual sheets, I pulled them together on to a dashboard. The charts were all there, but the dashboard needed a unifying theme.

Format the Dashboard

This is where the crucial importance of formatting the dashboard came into play. I incorporated several customized design elements to match the artistic theme. For example, I changed the background color to a Sepia tone to give an aged look without detracting too much from the data. Though I typically use modern Sans Serif fonts, in this case I went with Constantia, since I wanted it to feel like I was reading an old history book. I added custom shapes in the form of brush strokes to the scatter plot and the bars. That is something I would not do on a typical business dashboard, but here I was happy to use some artistic license. Most importantly, I used the beautiful watercolor map from Stamen Design since it seemed perfect for the occasion. Since the map only included French artists, I was able to use a clipped image of France as a background image on a scatter plot. I also added some custom text on the map to give it an old Atlas feel. I had to add in an inset image of St. Thomas to account for the birthplace of Pissarro. Finally, I added a Credits tab to document the source content on Wiki pages as well as the map.

Add Interactivity

To make the dashboard interactive, I added several hover and select actions. Hovering over any of the bar charts or the scatter plot highlights the corresponding marks on the other charts. This also updates the Artist Profile section using Artist ID as the unique filtering criterion. I have always loved to read the little descriptive cards in the art museums that provide some context about the art works. I decided to incorporate a series of notes (the numbered brown buttons) that I thought would be a fun way to learn about the history of the impressionists and the perfect opportunity to add some storytelling to the dashboard. I added in audio for each of the numbered notes by uploading the audio files I created to my Spreaker account, and then hosted the HTML files with the embedded audio object on Google Drive. I noticed that some browsers blocked the auto-play of audio files. If you see this happening, you may need to press play manually in the top left corner of the dashboard. I also created a thumbnail gallery for the artists using custom shape files and linked them to higher resolution images using filter actions. There are over 300 images included in this dashboard.

Publish, Review, Refine

I am never quite satisfied with the dashboards I build, and keep tweaking it. I reviewed the dashboard with colleagues and friends and incorporated their opinions. Do not underestimate this step. Watching your users interact with the dashboard, and getting their feedback can give you great ideas you had not thought of before. Finally, there are a few instances where the Desktop version and the published Web version behaved differently. I continued to refine the dashboard until I was happy with the way things looked online.

The final version of the dashboard on Tableau Public is also available here.

I would love to hear your thoughts.