What’s Good? Parameter Actions with Ant Pulley. (August)

Welcome to the August edition of “What’s Good?”.

It is with great joy I invite Ant Pulley to the blog for the August edition of “What’s Good?” This month’s topic is on Parameter Actions. I’ve known Ant for a good chunk of time now, having previously had the pleasure of working in the same division when at Lloyds Banking Group. Ant joined Tableau Public shortly after, and I have been nothing but impressed by his talent of technical builds as well as commitment to the makeover Mondays.

If you aren’t already, please follow him on his socials. He can be found on Twitter, Tableau and his own blog site.

CJ: Thanks for joining Ant, for those who may not know you as well can you give a little background to yourself and your data journey?

A: Thanks so much for having me CJ – really enjoyed your blog series, so I was very happy you wanted to include me on it!

About me – so I have been working in analytical jobs since straight out of Uni for about 18 years in a range of industries – Defence, Government, Retail, Maintenance and most recently Banking. I started off very much in the Excel modelling and VBA world until I joined Tesco around 9 years ago – there I got to use SQL an awful lot and also started in more of a reporting role, primarily using Excel at first, then a bit of Power BI and finally moving onto Tableau in the last few years. I found I really enjoyed the Tableau and Visualisation side of things and so moved to a job at Lloyds Banking Group two years ago which was solely focussed on BI and Visualisation, mainly in Tableau – ideal!

CJ: You joined Tableau Public back in April 2019. What prompted you to join the community on TP and Twitter? What has been your favourite thing about it?

A: Yes that’s right – I set my account up when I started looking for the new role at Lloyds as I wanted to do some upskilling outside of work. So initially it was used for exercises and a small number of personal projects. It stayed fairly quiet on there until around August 2020 when I decided to take the plunge and get involved on the Twitter scene.

There were a few reasons for this. I had intended on getting involved for a while as I had seen Marc Reid and Amar Singh (who I also work with) heavily involved with the community and the various initiatives. I would also be remiss to not mention you CJ – once you had started appearing I just thought I had to get involved! 😊

Another main reason for starting it, probably the same for a lot of people last year, is COVID. During the first few months of COVID I didn’t really have much time for anything as my daughter was home 100% of the time so my wife and I were having to juggle work and childcare, not leaving too much extra time. Once she had gone back to nursery there was suddenly a lot more time available, so I decided “now or never” and took the plunge.

I had a really welcoming start on the Twitter community with my Digital Scotland Makeover Monday viz – mainly thanks to Marc Reid who gave me a follow Friday shout out off the back of it.

So that was a nice boost to the confidence! Since then I had been focussing on mainly getting Makeover Monday’s done and building up my profile. The DataFam on Twitter are really welcoming, making it very easy to post your stuff up.

CJ: What advice would you give to new members of the community?

A: I’d say just don’t be afraid to get involved and post your content up! The hardest thing to start doing is to get yourself out there and posting your work – for me I was worried about how it would be received and if I would get any negative comments. What I found is the opposite – people are really supportive, and any feedback they give is always constructive rather than too critical.

I found Makeover Monday a great way to get involved as there are a load of people who do this regularly, and a big community around it. Also as you are given data sets each week, it is a nice way to build up your profile without having to do any potentially time consuming data work.

Another thing I would definitely advise, and one I’m not personally so good at, is to ask for feedback. If you do that you will improve a lot quicker (assuming that is your aim!) – but it also gets conversations going with other people, building up that network.

CJ side note: I was asked this at a recent VizConnect and bashfully said ‘resilience’ …. I way prefer Ant’s answer. If you’d like to read a little more on feedback check out last months blog What’s Good with Sarah Bartlett.

CJ: Since joining you’ve produced 59* fantastic vizzes. They showcase such an array of chart types, designs and technical functions. Which has been your favourite to build and why?

*At the time of writing

A: Thank you! I like to try different things, which is probably why you don’t see too many vizzes of mine looking very similar. I also have some really silly ones that you can’t really call Data Viz, but more playing around with some of the Tableau functionality.

I’ve had a lot of vizzes that I have really enjoyed doing, but probably one of my favourites was from a Makeover Monday quite a while ago on Nintendo Switch sales.

I remember being really excited about this when building it and staying up pretty late doing it – but people seemed to really like it and to date is my most favourited viz! The only slight regret I had is that in my initial share on twitter, I hadn’t noticed some of my sheet backgrounds were not set to transparent, so my Gif didn’t look as clean as I would have liked! But that is pretty minor!

I should probably also mention my most pointless viz (so far) – the Relaxing Octopus – also very fun to build and made me laugh most of the time I was doing it!

CJ: Recently it has been the IronVizFeeder2021, I was particularly blown away by your curvy timeline. I thought the design of making it look like a music sheet was a particularly nice touch. What have been your main takeaways from your very first IronViz?

A: Thanks CJ – I was really happy with this one. I tried to veer away (although not fully 😊) from a heavily parameter/interactive driven viz and get more design involved – and had a flash of inspiration with the music inspired timeline.

In terms of my first Iron Viz, I found it a really great experience. It was easily the most time and thought I had put into a public Viz and I think that opened my eyes a lot in terms of how to approach my public work in future.

Up until now I had been doing primarily quick turnaround Makeover Monday or other initiatives (e.g. Diversity in Data) but have not spent a big chunk of time on them. So doing this with the IronViz and seeing what I could come up with having put that extra effort in was really interesting. For example I did a lot more sketches on the subject before I started building it and spent more time thinking about it before really kicking it off.

I also loved seeing all the other entries coming in as you get such a huge range of ideas. I think this year with the theme being very open, there is a great range of topics as well as designs.

I have written about how I found the process in a bit more detail here, this also includes some technical bits around how I built the viz.

CJ: You’ve shared multiple blogs on your site consult-ant. I felt the examples on parameters particularly stood out. Why do you think parameters are a useful tool to use within your visualisation?

A: Primarily for me – Interactivity. Parameters allow so much to be done on top of a standard viz, whether it is changing the chart type, the components within the chart, reference values, aggregations and more.

Parameters on their own were great, but when Parameter Actions came in a while back, this was a game changer as it opened up the ability to customise your UI a lot more. Previously you had to have a parameter on the sheet in the default format, but with Parameter Actions you can drive any parameter change from a sheet. This means creating buttons/interactive features was really easy.

Also with Parameter Actions, the ability to drive a particular parameter with data from your data source can be really powerful. Allowing easy drilling down of data, or changing of reference points for the user to explore the viz. Another very useful one I find is the ability to configure your vizzes more easily.

By this I mean using a parameter to change e.g. the relative positioning of marks. I used this a few times in my IronViz entry when building the curvy timeline, where I would use a parameter in some calculated fields rather than hard coded values. This means I can alter the parameter on the dashboard until the viz ‘fits’ right without having to amend any calculations

CJ: I love your ability to use parameters to drive animation. What tips and tricks have you come across when building these types of visuals?

A: I really love the animation functionality in Tableau as it can add so much to a visualisation. I have used parameters a lot to drive the animation based on user selection, and also more recently I have also discovered using Pages for a different style of animation:

I also love making gifs! So an animation fits with this very nicely!

In starting with animations I would often refer people to Marc Reid’s blog on the fundamentals of how they work, as there are a few things you need to understand – for example how Tableau designates a ‘Mark ID’ to use in the animation.

For using parameters with animations, there are a few ways this could work. I have done some (e.g. the chocolate makeover Monday) which use buttons to drive the animation. In this case clicking the button changes a parameter, which alters the coordinates of things on the view.

This looks like a bar chart with time along the X axis – whereas it is actually just lines plotted on the chart. I have added coordinate into the data to create a line for each element, and then use a parameter with some calculated fields to move them round the sheet. One trick I often use in animations, and one I used above, is fixing the X and Y axes. This means I can ‘store’ elements off the canvas and animate them in when I want them – I,e, the year on year difference bars in the above example which slide in from the top. These are actually always there, just beyond the maximum of the Y axis. You can see my blog on the above, here.

Another useful trick I found out recently is to do with using colour on marks. With animations, if you are using a parameter to change a category of a mark on the mark colour, this would generally break the animation. I used a trick a few times to instead have a continuous measure that you use on colour (e.g. 1-10) and instead you assign each of those numbers a colour and choose (or create) a stepped colour palette that has enough points to colour each number differently. As the colour measure is continuous, the animations will still flow! I did this on #BlackHistoryMonth viz for Diversity in Data (see below) where I was able to colour by Gender or Category when the user made the selection.

CJ: Your Mario Viz was a particular favourite in the community. I really enjoyed your VizConnect session on it. Do you have any other scenarios in mind where you could apply a similar logic?

A: Thanks CJ – yes that was another favourite of mine, and I really enjoyed getting the chance to do the VizConnect session.

In terms of other scenarios – there are a wealth of games that you could do in a similar vein (and loads have been done in Tableau Public). I had Connect4 in my head to do at some point!

I used a simpler but similar logic in an earlier viz with a hexmap that animated

The fundamentals behind it is basically a transparent sheet controlling the parameters placed over the sheet you can actually see – so you can keep the visual sheet clean and only show the values, rather than having all the calculated parameter fields in it and messing up any animation.

This transparent overlay could be useful for all sorts of things where you want the sheet underneath to be clean and you want to keep all the ‘Parameter’ goodness in the transparent sheet. This also works very well if you wanted to just have a static image underneath which you have some transparent ‘Buttons’ over the top of it to activate parameter actions (like my Nintendo Viz I mentioned earlier).

In the Mario Viz, as well as the parameter/animation side of it – I also had the gamification elements. So I had a score counter and ‘Motivational Messages’ as well as the ‘Congratulations’ finished part. This could be a fun way to introduce users to different topics – make it more interactive and make people want to see what happens next. I see this a lot nowadays in company training videos to try and keep user engagement – making it much more gamified. So I don’t see why this could also be applied to some storytelling dashboards in the work domain.

CJ: What visualisations on Tableau Public have particularly stood out to you recently?

A: Well we have just come out of IronViz season – so most of them! Sam Parsons Marvel Time River in particular I thought was exceptional!

One I saw a few months back that made me think ‘this is exactly the kind of viz I want to be able to design and build’ was by George Koursaros on the Lord of the Rings films – this got a viz of the day. It was exactly my kind of topic (Fantasy) and was done so beautifully – the design and viz just all fit together so well. I hope one day I can come up with something this good – I will probably retire shortly afterwards.

Another more recent one, and another viz of the day, was from Nir Smilga.

Again it was another subject right up my street (music) and I loved the interactivity of it and also the usefulness and education of it. Music is something I want to viz more, and I really loved this one!

CJ: Has there been anyone in the community that has inspired you? How about in terms of parameter actions?

A: It is too many to really name them all! But I can pull out a few.

Judit Bekker

Judit does some amazing design work and I am always looking at her stuff wondering how she thinks of it! I don’t quite have that kind of eye for it yet, but I try to take some of her concepts and use them – particularly when it comes to layering elements.

CJ Mayes

This is you. I’m always impressed by your content, and it was some of the earlier blogs you wrote on mapping points to shapes that I have ended up using a number of times and keep referring back to!

CJ side note: The above quote only cost me a tenner. *cheesy grin*

Zak Geis

I love his design tips and tricks, and I find myself using these more in a work context rather than Tableau Public as they align heavily with usability. Recently I have used his Visual Filters and KPI Filters concepts at work.

Ken Flerlage and Kevin Flerlage

Sorry to put these two under one heading! But it is because I use the Flerlage Twins blogs for a lot of different things. The most recent one being my IronViz curvy timeline – which I used their really easy to follow blog.

Chimdi Nwosu

Chimdi is always putting out top quality content on Tableau Public, and really regularly too – I often seem to be favouriting them. I love his designs, and have reached out to him for a little Figma help in the past which he has been happy to provide!

In terms of Parameter actions, the main person who really inspired most of the parameter work I do is Marc Reid, who I am lucky enough to work with. He showed some examples at work including a parameter action driven selection pane which changed the way I used parameters permanently. He also planted the seed of ‘painting’ with Tableau which I used in my Bob Ross makeover Monday a while back.

There are many many more!

CJ: Can you give a run-through of a few parameter examples that can help with dashboard builds?

A: I can try! The beauty of Parameters are that they are so versatile, so you can really do an awful lot with them. I’ll run through a couple, and then list some others with useful links.

Change a Measure/Category/Aggregation

This is probably one of the more straightforward uses of parameters – just changing a calculation based on a parameter value. You can use this to change the measure you are showing, change the categories being displayed or change the aggregation of the data.

For a measure switch, you can set up a parameter like the below with the measures you want to switch between.

Then a calculated field which pulls in the measure based on the selection.

This can then be added to the view as a normal measure, and you can use the parameter to switch between the two:

You can also do this with dimensions, e.g. category to change what is shown:

And also do things like change the aggregation of the measure:

You could also do a combination of them:

Swap Sheets

Sometimes just changing a measure isn’t good enough, and you want the use to be able to switch the whole visualisation to a new one. You can use parameter actions for this (although Tableau 2021.2 has some ace show/hide functionality that could replace a lot of this use).

This basically involves setting up a container which contains two elements to be switched – both set to ‘Fit Entire View’. Then for each sheet you set up a filter based on a parameter selection which only shows when the parameter selection is chosen.

The key things to make sure this works are getting the Fit settings correct, making sure sheet titles are turned off, and making sure there is a dimension in the view:

Use As a Filter

Useful particularly for filtering across data sources. You can use a parameter as a filter using a simple calculation on that parameter:

Use as a Data Source

Slightly more complicated – and some of the blogs I mention below go into this – but this is basically the trick of storing multiple values in a Parameter that you can refer to later. You can do this using some form of delimiter and I often use a “~” so a parameter could look like:

This contains two of the category names, separated by a “~”. Then, you can search for these using another calculated field:

Which will return ‘True’ if it can find one of the categories in the DataSource parameter. You can then use this as a filter as well:

In combination with parameter actions, you can do some pretty powerful things with this technique. See some of the blogs below for more details on these.

Other Uses and Resources:

  • Create selections boxes with parameter actions.
  • Create multi-selection boxes (cc. Marc Reid).
  • Create more custom UI options. I have created custom scroll bars in work, following this great blog by Lindsay Betzendahl – very useful if you have more than one worksheet to scroll at the same time.
  • Using parameters as a data source – extension of the multi-select box – but you can use parameters to store anything really, which you can then reference via calculations. For example co-ordinates. See my blog on my Bob Ross viz where I used a lot of this.
  • I haven’t tried this yet, but you could go full Parameter Schema as described by Rosario Gauna and Klaus Schulte and essentially use parameters to create a query language for really customisable dashboards.

So as I said – versatile!

CJ: One of my favourite blogs of yours is citing process on inspiration. What are some upcoming things on your list of ideas to try out next?

A: I have an ever growing list of things I want to do next – some being a technical focus (e.g. a type of chart), some being a particular subject and some just being one specific line of text that has stuck in my head (e.g. a song lyric). A few on my list are:

  • Charlie Parker (Alto Saxophone player)
  • The Weather in Kington Langley (best not to ask)
  • Coffee
  • Whisky!
  • Some sort of animated waffle chart
  • A Sankey, as I haven’t ever done one!
  • I’m sure there will be many more ‘Just for Fun’ vizzes too

I’d also like to do more vizzes on Sustainability and Climate – hugely important issues that always deserve more light shining on them!

CJ: Finally, a fun one to end. If you were to redesign an old dashboard knowing what you know now, what would you change and why?

A: Good question! There are lots of vizzes I’s like to go back to and adapt. If I were to pick one, I’d go back well before I started doing Makeover Mondays and getting involved with the community to one of the very first vizzes I published on Public.

This was a viz I did on a bit of music theory called the ‘Circle of Fifths’ and at the time I was really happy with what I had done. Looking back at it now and there is a lot I could do better. The design was pretty basic, and now I have done a music themed IronViz I think I can take learnings from that into this one – for example the use of icons and getting them to line up well.

Also this viz was done before I had learned anything about parameter actions! So there is functionality in it, but it is all rather painfully done in Action filters and careful positioning. I think I can get this one working much cleaner with that knowledge.

Map layers would also be a huge advantage in this viz as I was putting a lot of different elements together into one view.

I think I will probably re-do this viz at some point – I’ll have to get your view on the next iteration!

CJ Round-up:

I’ll keep it short and sweet this month. Ant killed it. I’m loving this blog and have learnt so much along the way. I particularly have loved the variation in different parameter user cases he mentions. This guest blog oozes creativity from a lot of different members of the community so I’m pleased to see the sheer number of references Ant cites for inspiration. His shout-outs covered a whole range of topics too. That’s what it’s all about!

As always, A huge thank you to Ant – I can tell a great amount of time and detail went into this. Looking forward to seeing some of your upcoming vizzes.

LOGGING OFF,

CJ

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