Hands on Table Calculation Techniques with Tableau

4 min read
This article is a book excerpt from the title Mastering Tableau written by David Baldwin. This book will help you master the intricacies of Tableau to create effective data visualizations.

Today, we shall explore Table Calculation Techniques with Tableau and explore a real world example of using these techniques.

In this article, we provide a simple schema for understanding table calculations. This schema is communicated via two questions:

  • What is the function?
  • How is the function applied?

These two questions are inexorably connected. You cannot reliably apply something until you know what it is. And you cannot get useful results from something until you correctly apply it. The sections below will help you to get a head start into Table calculation techniques and how to use Tableau functions effectively for implementing Table calculation.

Basics of Table Calculation

Calculated fields can be categorized as: row level, aggregate level, and table level. For row- and aggregate-level calculations, the underlying data source engine does most (if not all) of the computational work, and Tableau merely visualizes the results. For table calculations, Tableau also relies on the underlying data source engine to execute computational tasks; however, after that work is completed and a dataset is returned, Tableau performs additional processing before rendering the results. This can be seen within the following process flow diagram, in the circled part titled Tableau performs additional processing. This is where table calculations are processed.

Table Calculations in Tableau

We will continue with a definition:

A table calculation is a function performed on a dataset in cache that has been generated as a result of a query from Tableau to the data source.

Let’s consider a couple of points regarding the dataset in cache mentioned in the preceding definition. First, it is important to understand that this cache is not simply the returned results of a query. Tableau may adjust the returned results. For example,, Tableau may expand the cache via data densification. Secondly, it’s important to consider how the cache is structured. Basically, the dataset in cache is a table and, like all tables, is made up of rows and columns. This is particularly important for table calculations since a table calculation may be computed as it moves along the cache. Such a table calculation is directional. Alternatively, a table calculation may be computed based on the entire cache with no directional consideration. Table calculations such as this are non-directional. Directional and nondirectional table calculations will be considered more fully in the following section.

Directional and non-directional table calculation functions

As of Tableau 10, there are 32 table calculation functions in Tableau. However, many of these are simply variations of a theme; for example, there are five Running functions, including RUNNING_SUM and RUNNING_AVG. If we narrow our consideration to unique groups of table calculations functions, we will discover that there are only 11. The following table shows these 11 functions organized in two categories:

Table calculations in Tableau

As mentioned previously, non-directional table calculation functions operate on the entire cache and thus are not computed based on movement through the cache. For example, the SIZE function doesn’t change based on the value of a previous row in the cache. On the other hand, RUNNING_SUM does change based on previous rows in the cache and is therefore considered directional.

Practical Example

In this example, we’ll see directional and non-directional table calculation functions in action:

  1. Navigate to h t t p s ://p u b l i c . t a b l e a u . c o m /p r o f i l e /d a v i d 1. . b a l d w i n #!/ to locate and download the workbook associated with this chapter.
  2. Navigate to the worksheet entitled Directional/Non-Directional.
  3. Create the following calculated fields:

Table calculation in tableau

  1. Place Category and Ship Mode on the Rows shelf.
  2. Double-click on Sales, Lookup, Size, Window Sum, Window Sum w/Start&End, and Running Sum to populate the view.
  3. Compare the following screenshot with the notes in step 3 of this exercise for better understanding:

Table calculation in Tableau

We discussed techniques for implementing table calculations with Tableau. If you liked our post, be sure to check out Mastering Tableau which consists of other useful data visualization and data analysis techniques.

Mastering Tableau




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