Kirk Munroe: Relationships, Joins, Blends & When to Use Them


Kevin and I are pleased to welcome back Kirk Munroe for the third blog in his series about data modeling with Tableau. Kirk lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and is a business analytics and performance management expert. He is currently one of the owners and principal consultants at Paint with Data, a visual analytics consulting firm, along with his business partner and wife, Candice Munroe, a Tableau User Group Ambassador and former board member for Viz for Social Good.


Kirk is also the author of Data Modeling with Tableau, an extensive guide, complete with step-by-step explanations of essential concepts, practical examples, and hands-on exercises. The book details the role that Tableau Prep Builder and Tableau Desktop each play in data modeling. It also explores the components of Tableau Server and Cloud that make data modeling more robust, secure, and performant. This blog will give you a taste of what’s available in the book, so if you find this useful, go buy the book! Also be sure to check out Kirks’ previous blogs, 4 Common Tableau Data Model Problems…and How to Fix Them and 14 Scenarios and When to Use Tableau Prep vs Desktop?




The 2020.2 release of Tableau brought the long-awaited feature of relationships. Relationships allow you to create a relationship between two or more tables by letting Tableau know which fields are related between the tables. You then trust Tableau to make the necessary joins (or not) at run-time to answer the questions you pose as you create sheets (for more details on this, see Ken’s blog, Tableau's New Data Model & Relationships). Prior to 2020.2, you had to explicitly create joins between these tables. Relationships can be almost magical in that you just trust Tableau to do the trick—no thinking about what the SQL is being creating behind the curtain. On the flip side, you are putting your trust in the hands of the magician!


Team Relationship vs Team Join


When questions of joins vs relationships come up in the #DataFam on social media, it looks like most people fall hard on either “Team Relationship” or “Team Join”. Let’s explore these two positions a bit.


Team Relationship - People on Team Relationship are very trusting—they are happy to let Tableau figure out the necessary joins for them. Why spend time thinking about all that if you don’t have to? Let Tableau do that—we have vizzing to do right now! People on this team might also be a little afraid of getting a join wrong, but we know they are the minority!


Team Join - People on Team Join are not very trusting of Tableau to get things right. People on this team are experts in SQL so why would they hand that logic off to someone else? People on this team might also be control freaks, but we know they are the minority!


So which team makes the most sense to join (pun intended!)? I like to think the best team is a third team which seems to have the smallest membership (or at least the quietest membership)—Team Right Tool for the Job.

Team Right Tool for the Job - People on Team Right Tool for the Job understand that vizzing in Tableau is the quickest, easiest, and most fun when they are working with an ideal data model. People on this team know that relationships really can be magic but they can also lead to unnecessary queries and aren’t up to the task of every job. People on this team also know that joins can lead to inflexibility, limiting analysis, data explosions, and longer-running queries. Sure, being on this team means you are likely to spend more time building your data model, but team members understand that they make that time up many times over when creating vizzes. No more unexpected answers, difficult calculations, and going back to the data model when new questions arise!


Oh, wait. What about Team Blend? Blends were never a favorite feature of mine. They are inflexible, slow, and tricky to get right. One of the great benefits of relationships is that, most of the time, they eliminate the need for blends. There is one exception to that rule and we will talk about it at the end of this post. Short answer, avoid being on Team Blend except in one (hopefully) rare case when you might need to be!


What do we need to know to be on Team Right Tool for the Job? Let’s use a near-real-world scenario to understand what it takes by understanding the ideal use cases for relationships and joins. To do this, let’s explore data from Inside Airbnb for New York City.


Note: As I write this, the date is April 1, 2023 (although this post is no joke!), so your results may vary slightly depending on when you download data.


We are going to use three files from this site:


1) Summary Listings - Contains a single row for each listing, along with some summarized metrics for each.


2) Detailed Reviews - Contains a single row for each review of a listing over time. Thus, each listing will have multiple rows. Note: This data will download as a compressed “gz” file. You’ll need to extract the csv file using a tool such as 7-Zip.


3) Neighbourhood Shape File - Spatial file (GeoJSON format) of the neighbourhoods of the city. Contains a single row for each neighbourhood.


When to Use Relationships


Let’s start by discussing some situations where relationships make the most sense. We’ll start by detailing the three ideal scenarios for relationships:


1) The tables are of different lengths. That is, they don’t have the same number of rows. In tech speak, their cardinality is “1:Many.” Joining these tables will result in an explosion of data and will often lead to confusing aggregation calculations in Tableau.


2) The tables have analytical value on their own. In other words, you can get answers to important questions by just querying either table on its own, without any joins at all. Relationships will will not create a join to answer these questions, resulting in much simpler and faster SQL queries.


3) Your questions require multiple join types. In this scenario, the analysis you’re performing would require at least two of the different types of joins (right, left, inner). That is when questions of “only when data exists in the left table”, “only when data exists in the right table”, and “only when data exists in both tables” are all relevant questions.


This might still seem a bit confusing, but looking at the first two files should clear things up a bit. In Tableau, let’s create a relationship between the summary lists and detailed reviews files using the Id field from listings and the Listing Id field from reviews.


With a little analysis in Tableau, we can quickly see that these tables are much better optimized as a relationship than they would be through a join for the reasons we shared earlier.


The Tables are of Different Lengths


The listings table has 42,931 records (one for each listing) and the reviews table has 1,110,024 records (one for each review—each listing will have many different reviews). With a join, this would lead to a pretty big data explosion. The listings table has 18 fields. If you think about this like a spreadsheet, a right join would result in 19,207,674 additional cells of data!!


The resulting data set would also make aggregation quite tricky. For example, with a relationship, we could do a simple COUNT of Id to get the number of listings. With the join, we would need to do the more expensive COUNTD (Count Distinct) or we would get the wrong number.


The Tables Have Analytic Value on Their Own


There are a lot of questions that could be asked of either table on its own. How many listings are there by neighborhood? How many reviews have there been over time? To answer these, we do not need to join to the other table, so why force that to happen every time?


Your Questions Require Multiple Join Types


There are many questions we could ask of this data set and, depending on the question, we could use a variety of join types. Let’s look at some examples. For all of these, please envision the listings table on the left and the reviews table on the right.


What if we wanted to know how many reviews there are for all the current listings over time, including listings which have declining reviews? For this, we need a left join because we need to make sure we get all of the listings, not just those with at least one review.


What if we wanted to analyze reviews over time, regardless of whether the listings are all still available? For this, we need a right join because we need to make sure we’re getting everything from the reviews table.


What if we wanted to know about reviews for only listings that are still available today and we don’t care about listings with no reviews? Here’s where we’d use an inner join.


Let’s take a closer look at the first question—listings that have any number of reviews (including none). We might start by building a physical left join. We’d then build a dashboard to answer this question, but our audience might come back to us and want to know about reviews related to listings that are no longer active (our second question). We would have to go back and either change our join or, more likely, create another data source using the same tables but a different join type. However, with a relationship, we could answer all these questions with the same data model. This is because Tableau will automatically choose the correct join type at runtime on a question-by-question basis (i.e. a sheet-by-sheet basis).


What about a full outer join? Full outer joins are messy. They result in an even bigger data explosion and a lot of null values which need to be dealt with in calculations. With the introduction of relationships, I can’t think of a single case for these with the possible exception of the specialized “intersects” spatial join which we will address shortly.


All of this to say, bringing the listings and reviews tables together is a perfect case for relationships over joins.


Now let’s add the neighbourhoods spatial file to our model.


The first question is whether to create the relationship/join with the listings or reviews table. Notionally, a listing exists in a neighbourhood and a review exists on a listing. For this reason, I would recommend creating the relationship/join against the listings table like this:


The next question would be whether to use a relationship or a physical join. Let’s explore…


The Tables are of Different Lengths


The listings table has 42,931 records and the neighbourhoods file has 233 rows. This is a vote for a relationship.


The Tables Have Analytic Value on Their Own


In this case, the neighbourhood spatial file doesn’t have much analytical value on its own so this is neither a vote for a relationship nor a join.


Your Questions Require Multiple Join Types


The neighbourhood file really only has value when it is joined to listings as a left join so it is neither a vote for a relationship nor a join.


All of this to say, the case for a relationship over a join is not nearly as strong as it was for listing and reviews. However, the difference in the number of rows alone would make me go the relationship route.


You “Team Relationship” people are out there saying “exactly!” aren’t you? ;) Now is time to burst that bubble…


When to Use Joins


Continuing with our Airbnb data, let’s say that we want to enhance our analysis with data from, which contains walk scores for each neighbourhood in New York City (I’ve put the data into csv and made it available here: NYC Walk Scores). Let’s look at why joining this data to the spatial neighbourhood file makes more sense than adding it as a relationship.


Note: The neighbourhoods in the spatial file do not quite line up with those in the walk score data, so if you try this yourself, you’ll run into some issues. In a real-world scenario, we’d perform some additional data cleaning to make sure everything tied together, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s pretend the neighbourhoods match up exactly.


We could certainly add our Walkscore data via a relationship like this:


But there are a couple of challenges with this approach. First, we are asking Tableau to make queries it doesn’t need to make. Second, it can cause confusion. For example, if we pull the Geometry field onto the viz and then Walkscore on color, we get:


This is confusing. Walkscore can’t be more than 100, right. To address this issue we might think that we could bring the Neighbourhood field (from the Neighbourhood data source) onto detail but that is also confusing…


To get the result we want me need to pull the Name field on from the Walkscore data source…


The reason for this behavior is that we need a field from the Walkscore table to force Tableau to make the join we need.


If we go back to our three conditions for a relationship, we can see that this table doesn’t meet any of them:


The Tables are of Different Lengths


Each of the tables has one row per neighbourhood, so they are the same length.


Note: In reality, they are slightly different lengths because of the mismatch issue noted earlier and the fact that the spatial file has two neighbourhoods that have two rows because their shapefiles have a break in them.


The Tables Have Analytic Value on Their Own


The Walk Score table doesn’t have much value on its own for this use case. It needs to be combined with the listings and/or geojson file for value—at least in the context of the Airbnb analysis we’re performing.


Your Questions Require Multiple Join Types


It makes a lot of sense to join the neighbours and Walk Score data as they provide value as a single table. Assuming they were properly cleaned and each had one row per neighbourhood, a right, left, or inner join would all yield the same results. So, we can just perform a physical inner join. The final optimized model would look like this:



With the joined table looking like this:


This model effectively is treated as three tables (in Tableau terms, three “logical” tables). Listings has a row for each of the ~43k listings; Reviews has ~1.1 million rows, one for each review; The physically joined tables have ~240 rows, one for each neighbourhood.


Team Right Tool for the Job for the win!


Additional Join Use Cases


Before we close this discussion, I’d like to briefly mention two other cases where joins are preferable:


1) Geospatial joins where the INSTERSECTS operator will be used. Although we used a geospatial file in our example, we did not need a geospatial join. We created both our relationship and join to the table with a string field. When using INTERSECTS, we must use a physical join since it is not supported by Relationships.


2) When there is a need for row-level security, an entitlements table is used, and the data source will be published for others to use to create their own workbooks. In this case, a query that would only requires a single table without needing the join to the entitlements table might expose data it shouldn’t. If you are embedding your data source in the workbook and ensuring people cannot download or edit your workbook, relationships with row-level security and an entitlements table works well. But, admittedly, it still makes me nervous and this is one of those scenarios where I prefer to force Tableau to always join the tables together, just in case.


What About Blends?


Okay, so we’ve gotten all the way through this and haven’t discussed blends, so let’s address them quickly. Now that we have relationships, I can only think of a single use case for blends—when you need to combine a published data source with other data in a workbook. At the time of writing, when you connect to a published data source from Tableau Desktop (or web authoring), you cannot connect to additional tables from the data source page. You can, however, connect it to another data source using a blend.


Imagine in our scenario that the model with listings, reviews, and neighbourhoods has been published as a published data source. We connect to that data source on Server/Cloud and want to add Walk Score data for context. Our only option, unless we go back to the data source owner, is to blend that Walk Score data.


Blending has many challenges. Mostly, they perform slowly, and they are difficult to set up, especially when the blend depends on dates. More importantly, they only allow for analysis at the level of aggregation of the secondary data source. What would this mean in our case? We could explore neighbourhoods by Walk Score but if we wanted to see the walk score of an individual listing, we would not be able to get it because it is “below” the level of neighbourhood. For all of these reasons, my suggestion is to avoid blends whenever possible, only using them when you have no other options available.




Well, there you have it. I hope that, if you are on Team Relationship or Team Join that you now see the value of coming to Team Right Tool for the Job. And maybe you can bring some friends with you!


I hope you’ve enjoyed my series of blogs on data modeling with Tableau. If you haven’t read the previous blogs, you can find them here:


4 Common Tableau Data Model Problems…and How to Fix Them

14 Scenarios and When to Use Tableau Prep vs Desktop?


My book, Data Modeling with Tableau, covers these and many other topics that I’ve not addressed in the series, including virtual connections, securing and sharing data models, creating models in the Tableau web interfaces, data model considerations for Ask and Explain Data, and data catalog and lineage. It is now available on Amazon in e-book and print formats.


Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to drop a comment below and we will be glad to address them.


Kirk Munroe

April 17, 2023


  1. Great post! One issue with relationships is that you can't use a data source that has a relationship to filter across another data source. For example, if data source A and B both have a relationship and a date field and I want the user to be able to filter by date across both sources at once, I can't simply apply the date filter from one source to the other. The filter pill turns red and the error message says: "Data sources that contain logical tables cannot be used as secondary data sources for data blending." In contrast, joined data doesn't have that limitation. I'd prefer to use a relationship for all the reasons you outlined above, but I also need to do cross data source filtering, so that the issue I'm battling right now.

    1. Hi Jen. First, thank you! As for your use case, do you mean you want to apply a filter with "All Using Related Datasources"? I've been able to make this work. If I'm misunderstanding, please let me know!

  2. This was a fantastic article, Kirk. Definitely something I've struggled with understanding for some time now and this did wonders in helping clear the mud!

    One thing that we discovered recently is that if a Tableau data source is created with relationships (or presumably with "Team Right Tool For the Job"), the data source can't be utilized in a Tableau Prep Flow.

    1. Hi Brain. Thank you!

      Good catch. I have never run into that situation before but it makes sense. Since the relationship would need to use the "engine" from Tableau Desktop/Server/Cloud to know how to create the join (and presumably that code isn't in Prep), it wouldn't know how to bring it into a flow.

      I think this makes sense as data modeling in Prep is a very directive/explicit set of tasks because your output is always going to be a single table.


Powered by Blogger.