Tableau ‘Describe’ Advanced Uses

Overview

Being aware of the possibilities of the Tableau Describe feature is crucial for a Tableau advanced user. Using this feature on your behalf brings new possibilities. In the following section of this article, we will explore a few possible ways how you can use the describe feature in Tableau. For the sake of simplicity, we will use the Super Sample Superstore data source.

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Tableau Describe Feature Use Cases Complete Guide

Explore Calculated Fields

When it comes to creating calculated fields, the Describe feature finds a place to be helpful, once again. We all have been there – we have a huge workbook with many calculated fields that we’ve designed or someone else before us. But what makes the cherry on top of the cake is that each calculated field usually is a product of other calculated fields. 

Let’s imagine that we right-clicked on one calculated field and chose “Edit…” instead of receiving the formula or just taking a closer look. This would bring up a computed field dialog box similar to this.

Our life without the describe feature of Tableau would be first, open a Word document, and take notes about all fields there so we can connect the dots between them. How would I know if Sales is a calculated field or comes directly from the data source? And if it is a calculated field, what is inside of it? I wouldn’t even go there; this would be such a mess. 

But with the Describe feature, everything is easier. You are only one click away from all the information you need. 

Clicking on anything blue, purple, or orange will bring up more information in the ‘fly-out window on the right. Here is what pops up when I click the RANK_UNIQUE function. On the right, I can see what the function is for and even the right syntax for it. 

When you click anything purple (parameters) or orange (fields), you will be given a choice to explain it. 

For parameters, the Describe button to view all of the allowed values is something that I prefer to utilize almost every time. If you need to design a CASE logic like in this calculated field, you don’t need to remember all the allowed values in the parameter itself. Just describe the parameter and use it as guidance when designing the CASE logic.

I like to utilize the Describe button to copy and paste underlying code for calculated fields as well. While you can read the underlying code on the right by just clicking on an orange calculated field, selecting the Describe button brings up more information, including text that can be copied.

For example, if we used the same logic as above for the CASE logic, we would put SUM before Profit Ratio as well; supposedly, it is a field from the data source itself. But once we describe the calculated field, we will notice that this field is already aggregated, so adding SUM before it will make the calculation invalid.

In both of these examples, I can write new calculated fields significantly faster since I don’t have to close the current calculated field window in order to re-open a parameter to view its permissible values or re-open a separate calculated field to utilize previously written code.

Save Processing Time

Since we got familiar with the Describe function earlier in this article, till now, you’ve probably right-clicked on an individual field and selected “Describe…” to learn more about the field’s attributes. Let’s take another field together and see how this feature can help us save time processing views. 

Here’s what is shown when doing this for the Category dimension in the Sample – Superstore dataset.

When used with a dimension, my favorite part of the description is that if you click the “Load” icon depicted in the bottom left corner of the window, Tableau will show you a glimpse of the first 20 dimension members. In my case, the Domain was already loaded. 

I used to drag and drop the field into the view to see what dimension members were in it before I discovered this function. Something like this:

Unfortunately, this meant that Tableau would have to query the data source to see the response, which may take a while depending on the size of my dataset. The describe feature is far more efficient and provides me with a notion of what dimension members are in the field without forcing me to build a new view or wait for processing. But if your targeted dimension has more than 20 members and you are eager to see them all, you will still need to use the drag and drop principle. 

Reverse Engineering – Describe a Tableau Sheet

For people who are actively engaging with Tableau, you’ve probably have encountered that situation to look for a tip online, be fascinated by it, and then find out that you’ve used it in a previous workbook of yours. In those moments, you don’t know if you are proud that you’ve known that tip even earlier on or sad that you just forgot that you knew it. That is why, from time to time, I prefer to look back to past workbooks to remember myself how I carried out a specific technique. 

I’m also a huge fan of Tableau Public and constantly encourage people to download dashboards they like so they can “dig under the hood” and understand how they were made. Tableau Public is a great initiative because sometimes, even if you read a thousand words on a specific technique, you may not understand it. Whereas looking at the example with real numbers, calculations and charts not only will help you understand it, but you will probably remember it well. Theoretical knowledge plus an example executed in Tableau Public so other people can dig in is ‘the king’ of Tableau knowledge.

In a nutshell, you will probably reach a point in life where you should reverse-engineer your own or someone else’s workbook. And then, you will come back to the following advice that has the goal to assist you in that process. 

Even though you’ve heard of describing fields, you might be surprised to learn that you can also describe complete sheets. Here’s an example of a sheet description, which can be accessed by clicking “Worksheet” in the top navigation and then selecting “Describe Sheet…”.

So basically, with the Describe Sheet option, you may see a description of the current worksheet’s workbook, data source, fields, and layout. The first line of this summary has the Caption, but it also includes other crucial summary information.

For this example, I specifically choose a small and really simple sheet just to prove a certain point – this Describe sheet option is so cool that for some simple sheets, you don’t even have to see the sheet itself to know what’s on it. For more complex sheets, you may not be completely able to imagine the sheet without seeing it, but you will probably get 90% of the concept behind it.

I will highlight some of the main key takeaways that we can obtain from this window:

  • The main measures that are displayed in the sheet are Sales, Profit, and Quantity
  • Those main measures are broken down by Category and Sorting
  • We can notice that the mark type is Text which indicates that on our sheet, we have a KPI table
  • On the Rows Shelf, we have our Category and Sorting field, while on the Columns Shelf, we have Measure Names. The text inside the table is the Measure Values
  • For the dimension Category, we have three members on this sheet (Furniture, Office Supplies, and Technology) which is the same case for the Measure Name, also three members. This indicates that we have a 3×3 table, so 9 values in total. 
  • Those 9 values have values in the range of almost ~7000 and ~840,000
  • The Sorting field that we have beside the Category on the Rows shelf is a calculated field. By being connected to a previously designed parameter in the sheet, Sort by measure, we are able to sort the table by one of the measures with only one click. 
  • The data source behind this sheet is Sample – Superstore, which is a Federated type. A federated data source combines different data sources and, as a final output, comes up with uniform data access.

Yes! We got everything correct just by reading about this worksheet. 

This was only a simple example where you can even predict how the sheet looks without even seeing it. In reality, you will be dealing with much more complex sheets where sometimes you will be eager to know what is going on in the background that you are not seeing. You can obtain some really powerful insights from just looking at the description of the sheet.

Not only does ‘Describe Sheet’ give a succinct overall picture of what’s going on in the worksheet, but you can also copy and paste the text into a notepad or Word document using the Copy button seen in the bottom-left corner of the preceding image. The code may then be used to replicate formulae that you may not be familiar with as computed fields.

Conclusion

This article has walked you through the fundamentals of a really cool feature in Tableau – Describe. Many people who work with Tableau take time to learn about this feature, but once they learn, they cannot stop using it on a daily basis. 

The Describe feature has two main applications – describe a particular field or describe a whole sheet. 

By describing a field, you will save a significant amount of time processing views since you can get all information about it without dragging it to the view, and you can explore the calculated fields easily and quickly. 

By describing a sheet, you will be able to reverse-engineer your own sheet or even someone else’s work, which is a lifesaver. 


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