Learn How Set Actions Can Help You Build Powerful Tableau Dashboards


Every few months, Tableau supports its customers by releasing innovative and exciting content that continues to make data exploration, analytics and story-telling easier, deeper and more interactive. Here at KeyData we stay on top of upcoming features and developments to assist our clients in their Tableau journey.

In October last year Tableau 2018.3 was released and contained within it was one of the most ground-breaking and powerful features introduced for some time. We are very excited about it and want to share it with the wider Tableau community.

Interactivity is a core component of any rich analytical system. It helps answer deeper questions, guides data exploration and can create a much-improved user experience. The tool we want to focus on in this post is Set Actions. Set Actions will assist in that data journey by allowing both you and your viewers to choose how you look at your data by interacting with it directly.

Set Actions were first introduced to the Tableau community at the Tableau Conference last year where they were demonstrated in one of the main presentations and then released in 2018.3 to widespread acclaim. In basic terms, Set Actions build on and combine pre-existing tools. They build on Sets; and they build on Actions. Both, and perhaps in particular sets, are under-utilised tools by most Tableau users, but are equally worth investigating in their own right.

In this example, an intuitive interactive selection allows a comparison to a selected state

Despite this post concentrating on Set Actions, it will be beneficial to briefly summarise both Sets and Actions to ensure at least a basic understanding before combining them and considering Set Actions.

Starting with sets – sets are, in effect, a custom field that define a subset of your data, based on existing dimensions. You can use them to compare and ask questions about that particular subset. A set can either be dynamic – where the members of a dynamic set change when the underlying data changes – or fixed – where, as the underlying data changes, the set contents do not.

Sets are powerful. They allow sub setting of data to be used anywhere in a visualization, and can be used to colour, group or filter as well as being accessible in calculations and more. After you create a set, it displays at the bottom of the Data pane in the Sets section. You can then drag it into the viz like any other field.

There are many ways you can use sets to answer complex questions and compare cohorts of data. A key difference between filters and sets that is worth emphasising is that filters only keep data that is in a selection, whereas sets group data into two groups—in or out of a selection. This is a difference that makes sets such a key asset to any Tableau developer. Sets will let us see things in context without filtering information out of the view.

Actions, on the other hand, allow you or your users to interact with your visualizations by selecting marks, hovering, or clicking a menu. The actions you set up can respond with changes in the view or by navigation. By selecting one or numerous marks within a viz, a user can change what is shown and how it is shown either in that sheet or a related sheet within the same dashboard.

Now you can be selective and don’t have to expand the whole hierarchy at every level

The three pre-existing actions were: Filter Actions – where you use the data from one view to filter data in another, to help guide analysis for example; Highlight Actions – where you call attention to marks of interest by colouring specific marks and dimming all others perhaps; and URL Actions – where you can create hyperlinks to external resources, such as a web page, file, or another Tableau worksheet. The action carried out by each of these actions was consistent but restricted. Filter actions always filter, highlight actions always highlight and URL actions always launch a URL or provide some sort of navigation.

Set Actions differ in this. By their very nature, they can have much broader utilisation and application. Set actions are much more than a new type of action; they extend Tableau’s interactivity to support custom user-defined behaviour. What I mean by that is that a single set with actions directed against it can apply different behaviours to various target sheets.

For example, previously it was entirely possible that the same set could colour sheet A, hide data in sheet B, and filter an axis in sheet C – all at the same time. And now with Set Actions, a user selection in any of these three sheets can be created to update the set, thereby modifying all target sheets with one single selection. Coordinating multiple actions through a single selection dramatically increases the breadth and depth of scenarios that can be addressed for end users though interactive applications.

Set Actions are all about interactivity. They connect two existing features – sets & actions. This then provides a wealth of opportunity to create new compositions from existing concepts. The new Set Action feature means that a selection of data points in a visualization can be stored in a set and then can be consumed elsewhere enabling richer, more flexible analysis for end users.

There are innumerable use-cases for Set Actions. In the embedded Tableau workbook below you can explore a selection of examples of some of these. One thing to remember with a couple of these visualisations is that yes, there are other pre-existing ways to do some of this stuff. But not all of it. And the content you might have been able to create before – you certainly couldn’t do the overwhelming majority of it by selecting marks on the viz itself.

As Tableau continues to release versions of its product with fresh and exciting features, we as users are enabled to continue to push the boundaries of our data analytics. We hope this look at this one specific new feature will create a spark within you to go beyond the ordinary. At KeyData we are excited to see what we and our clients can do with these tools at our fingertips.

If you would like to know about how Tableau can benefit your organisation and how KeyData can help you achieve your goals with your data using the latest technologies, please contact us.

(Due credit goes to the magnificent Lindsey Poulter and her wonderful blog without which the spark of creativity around Set Actions would never have been fanned into life within me. Thanks also go to the Tableau blog and, in particular, the content produced on Set Actions by Bethany Lyons, among others.)