Get Results Using Tableau Discrete vs Continuous Variables

Before reading through our Tableau Discrete vs Continuous guide, be sure to read our blog about Dimensions and Measures first. Once done, head back here and learn about the difference between Tableau discrete and continuous variables. You’ll also learn how Tableau discrete and continuous affect the view.

What is the Difference between Discrete and Continuous in Tableau?

The use of Tableau’s Discrete fields always results in headers being drawn whenever they are placed on the Rows or Columns shelves. On the other hand, Tableau Continuous fields always result in axes when you add them to the view. 

Continuous in Tableau will give you an overall trend of the data that you are looking at. While Discrete in Tableau allows you to segment the data to analyze it in different ways. Moreover, Tableau’s Discrete function gives you the chance to take something that would be the cumulative total of something and break it down into segments or chunks and see your data in different ways. This is not something that Excel can easily do. Changing these can affect how you present information. Discrete data in Tableau is always represented with a blue pill on the shelf, while Continuous data in Tableau is always green. 

Tableau Discrete and Continuous Examples

As an example, Tableau’s discrete variables are like whole numbers – 1, 2, 3, etc.  All 1’s will fall into the one bucket. There are no fractions or decimals. Real numbers, if you remember back to math class, can take on any value – 2.3, 4.56, pi, etc. Discrete variables, much like whole numbers, can be binned because they take on a finite number of values. Continuous variables can take on any value. 

The following images provide more examples of Tableau discrete vs continuous variables. Understanding how these Tableau variables build your charts is essential for getting the results you want. 

Discrete vs Continuous Tableau
What is the Difference between Discrete and Continuous in Tableau
Tableau Discrete vs Continuous
  1. On a new tab, drag Ship Date to the columns shelf and Profit to the row shelf.  
  1. Click on the down arrow on Ship Date and set it to Exact Date. Notice how the pill turns green (Tableau Continuous) and it changes the line to be a continuous, jagged line showing the profit for every day. This shows all profit at the most granular time period available in our data set. If we were recording profit by hour, it would be reflected in this chart. This view can show a trend, or it can show a lot of noise and obscure valuable insights. 
Continuous Line Chart with Discrete Date in Tableau
  1. Now go back up to the green Ship Date pill and click the down arrow and select Year. Click the arrow again and select Tableau Discrete if it isn’t already selected. You’ll now see that the pill on the column shelf is blue and has a plus sign. Click the plus and it will break your data into Quarters. Click the plus on Quarter and it will break it down further into Months. This is helpful to see your profits in a particular quarter of a year.  
What is Discrete and Continuous in Tableau

We are looking forward to your improved viz skills after learning about Tableau discrete vs continuous. If you want to further enhance your skills, check out our individual and corporate Tableau Training options.