Seeing Stars (*) - Asterisks in Tableau

by Michael Bracchi

If you’ve used Tableau even a little you may at some point have been met with an asterisk where your expecting a value. From what I’ve experienced, the most common cause of this is when using the ATTR() function. So, what is going on? First lets understand what the ATTR() function is and what its used for.

What is the ATTR() function?

The ATTR() (Attribute) function is an aggregation function useful for text fields. Very simply, if there is only a single value for that field at the relevant level of detail, the aggregated field will return that single value when the ATTR() function is applied. If there is more than one value, an asterisk is returned as Tableau doesn’t know how to handle the ambiguity of there being more than a single value in the field at the relevant level of detail.

Lets see an example of this in action:

I’ve been keeping track of my runs and have ended up with the below data set which counts the number of jogs I’ve been for per month and where the jog was undertaken. I work and live in London so most of my jogs take place in London, however, I went home to Newcastle for Christmas where I has 15 jogs.

NOTICE: December has two rows of data because the jogs were undertaken in two different cities. Lets make a bar chart in Tableau and force some asterisks!:

1). A simple bar chart showing number of jogs per month for the full year.
2). I want to see the city in which the runs took place in the tooltip. Notice how when i move [Location] (a discreet, text field) to the marks card it is aggregated using the ATTR() function.
3). When I hover over December however, [Location] is population by an asterisk (*). This is because there are two locations for a single month and we are viewing the data at the month level. We are therefore presented with an asterisk as Tableau does not know what to display on account of the ambiguity of having more than 1 value for that month.

To better understand whats happening here, It helps to think of what the ATTR() function is actually doing to the [Location] field. Some version of the following logic is applied.

In every case, if MIN(Field) != (MAX[Field]) you will see an asterisk.

Asterisks When Blending Data in Tableau

Asterisks can appear in your view when blending data for the same reason as described above. If two data sources are blended and there are multiple matching values as a result, then the ambiguity will force Tableau to display asterisks.

Consider blending data source 1: (states + state codes) and data source 2: US superstore. These two data sets are blended on [State]

When we blend two data sources on [State] we create a situation where States have a single category in data source 1, but more than 1 on account of adding data source 2. We therefore see a star where category should. Tableau cannot process the ambiguity!

Hope this has cleared up why we see pesky asterisks. I will be keeping a look out for other causes of this and will update this blog accordingly.

Further Reading

Check out this great blog by Joe Macari:


Michael Bracchi

Fri 23 Aug 2019

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