When you are first starting out, there will likely be a point where you will hit the infamous “Aha” moment when using Alteryx. It’s that distinct realization when you fully understand how powerful Alteryx Designer really is. You realize that you can automate anything, you don’t need to have a PhD in nuclear physics, and that it’s actually extremely addictive and fun! You will be opened to a whole new view of your work and what can be done. In my years of training users in Alteryx I have had it happen twice where someone broke down and started to cry after the end of the class. I am fairly certain it wasn’t because my training was that bad, it was because as they stated for the first time these users felt like they had a clear path out of a job they didn’t like or an industry they weren’t passionate about and felt stuck. This is what keeps me coming back. This Aha moment is such a great feeling. I mentioned earlier that Alteryx users can have a bit of a cult-like personality but as soon as you get started you will soon realize why.
In this chapter we are going to launch your Alteryx experience into orbit! I am going to show you what you need in order to build your first workflow. I will talk about the Alteryx Designer interface and the four main components of building a workflow. I will also talk about user settings that can help you as you get started and become more comfortable with all the tools you have access to.
If you are completely new to the data and analytics field I really want to challenge you to push through this chapter. I can’t testify to other technologies but for Alteryx it’s absolutely true that if you can get started and get the basics under your belt the rest will come very fast! You will find that you will be anxious to get into more and more as you realize that it’s really not as difficult as you may have thought. Are you ready? Ok, buckle your seatbelts, We are going to pick up speed and get going fast!
Your first step in the Alteryx journey is to understand the landscape of the Alteryx Designer interface. I have used a model for years to simplify helping users in getting started. I call it the “The Art of the Start in Alteryx”. It consists of four parts that are the foundational components to knowing how to become proficient in building workflows in the shortest time possible.
The four parts are:
The Tool Palettes
The Configuration Window
The Results Window
Becoming fluent with these four components right away makes almost everything else easier to understand moving forward so make sure you really understand each before moving onto further chapters. You won’t regret it!
The first step of this four part getting started section is knowing the tool palettes (see Figure 2-1). The Tool Palettes are the collections of tools that you will be using in building your workflows. They have a couple qualities that are important to remember. First off each individual palette is specific to one area of functionality. For example in Figure 2-1 below, the ‘In/Out’ tool palette holds tools that allow you to bring data into or out of your workflow, while ‘Preparation’ is a collection of tools that help you with cleaning or creating data. Each tool palette is both color coded as well as shape coded meaning that each tool has the same shape of its icon making it very easy to remember what it’s for. As we go through this book I will cover each and every tool palette and the tools within them.
There are specific options available to you to make it easier to get to the tool you need. You have the ability to add the tool to your favorites tool palette. The favorites tool palette always stays on the far left of all the palettes so you can easily get to it. In order to add a tool to the favorites palette you need to click on the yellow star in the upper right corner of the tool. You can also right click on the header of the tool palette and select “Pin [tool palette]” and it will hold that palette to the left so that you can quickly get to that entire collection of tools easily.
Once you get used to these colors and shapes of the tools you can look at your workflows you’ve built and recognize right away that you may have mostly ‘blue circle’ tools aka ‘Preparation’ tools and you can understand that for that workflow you are doing mostly cleanup or data creation, where other workflows you might see a lot of purple squares aka ‘Joins’ and you’ll recognize that you are joining a lot of data sources together. You can see in figure 2-2 below that there are many preparation tools and some joins and even a summary tool.
In order to use the tool palette you are simply going to find the tool you need (which this book will make you an expert in identifying!) and drag and drop it onto the Canvas, which we’ll dig into next.
The second part of this getting started section is getting to know the canvas. The canvas is where you do your art. It’s where you take tools from the palette onto your canvas and connect them together. A clean canvas looks like this (see Figure 2-5).
The important thing to understand is that this canvas is your workflow. The workflow is an XML based text file that holds all the tools, configurations, and properties of your workflow. You can go to File > Save and save this workflow to your machine and that will save everything you have done on this canvas.
At a high level it’s important to understand the three main pieces of a workflow:. They are Tools, Anchors, and Connections. (see figure 2-5)
Tools are the steps in the process
Anchors are the lime green arrows that are the input and/or output of each tool
Connections are the line connections from one tool to another
It’s important to note that if you don’t ensure that your tools are connected correctly you can have errors or your data will not get processed properly.
To use the canvas you will drag a tool from the tool palette (Step 1) and onto the canvas (Step 2) (see Figure 2-5). Once you have completed that, it’s time to configure the tool (Step 3).
The third part of this four part getting started section is getting to know the configuration window (see figure 2-6). Nearly every tool that is put onto the canvas has to be configured. Although many tools have similar configuration options, nearly all of them have a different number of options you can specify. Some tools have only one item to configure, some have close to 25! When you are getting started it can be a little confusing to know what you need to configure or how. Don’t worry I will cover all the tools in this book so you can always flip to a specific tool in order to cover the details.
The configuration of a tool is what tells the canvas at runtime what to specifically do or how to handle each of the tool’s actions. If you select data in the select tool for example you are going to configure the tool to tell the workflow which columns you want to select--don’t worry, more on this later
Once you have taken a tool from the tool palette (step 1) and dropped it onto the canvas (step 2) and configured it (step 3) then you need to RUN the workflow and see the results.The results window shows you two specific items. First it shows you the data that is input or output from whatever tool anchor you have selected (see Figure 2-7). Second,if you have the white canvas selected you’ll get to see a log of what happened during the execution of the workflow. (see figure 2-8)
The results window is extremely important to understand and use. It is what you’ll use in order to know that the workflow you are building is correct.
Now hopefully you can see from these 4 steps--Moving a tool from tool palette (step 1) onto the canvas (step 2) to configuring the tool (step 3) to run and see the results (step 4)-- that in order to build workflows you simply repeat these steps. Once you have completed step 4 you can add another tool to the canvas and connect it to the tool you set up previously. This approach has a couple good practice benefits for you. First it’s simple, you can remember these 4 steps now and once you have done it 100 times then it becomes ingrained in memory and you won’t even think about it. Second it promotes a very important design best practice--You shouldn’t put a bunch of tools onto the canvas, configure them then expect they will all run appropriately. Using this cycle you will run the workflow for each additional tool added and test and confirm that the workflow at the point in time is correct. It saves you tons of time in not having to go back and figure out what went wrong. Now let’s use this new found knowledge to build a workflow!
I want you to immediately put these four steps into practice right away and get you excited to build more workflows! Let’s do it! You are going to build a super quick and easy workflow that looks at Store data from an excel file.
Do you remember the first step? Yes! You need to bring a tool from the tool palette. Find the favorites tool palette and find the ‘Input Data’ tool (see figure 2-9)
Drag and drop that input data tool onto the canvas (see figure 2-10)
Now you need to configure the tool. If your Configuration window is not open you can simply double click the tool to open it or go to View on the menu and select Configuration or you could even use the shortcut Ctrl + Alt + C. In the configuration menu select the drop down arrow on the right of the configuration window (see Figure 2-11).
On the Data Connections screen click on Files (1) on the left side and then .xlsx (2) (see Figure 2-12)
In the Open File window navigate to the folder
C:Program FilesAlteryxSamplesdataSampleData and select “Sample Store File - CO.xlsx” (1). You can either double click on the file to select it or you can click it once and click Open (2) (see Figure 2-13)
The next step is to tell Alteryx Designer how you want to use the excel file. Do you want to pick a specific sheet? Do you want to select a range or even just list out the sheets you have in the excel workbook? In this case I am going to select “Sheet1” and click OK (see Figure 2-14)
Lastly, in order to view our data you need to run the workflow. Click on the blue Run button in the top right corner. (see Figure 2-15)
Now in order to see your results click on the output anchor of the input tool. Again you can also go to the View menu or you can use the shortcut CTRL+ALT+ R (see Figure 2-16)
Congratulations! You built your first workflow that connected to an excel sheet in an excel workbook! I know this might seem easy at first but now you have a clear 4 step model on how to build any workflow going forward. Don’t worry I am going to get into much more tools and workflows so stick with me! Before you go much further however let’s touch on some important features and settings you have available to you.
One of the largest challenges you will face in learning Alteryx Designer is that there are so many touch points, configuration options, and features that aren’t immediately obvious. I want to touch on a couple important ones in the beginning of your journey so that you can accelerate your knowledge quickly. Here are some important features you should know right away.
In the top right corner of Alteryx Designer there is what is called a “Global Search”. (see figure 2-17) This is an extremely powerful feature that many users, including me, use on almost every workflow we build. It’s called a global search because it searches a wide variety of objects such as Tools, Help Documentation, and Community content. It also provides links to these various resources. In tools if you search for a specific tool say the Join Tool you can actually drag and drop that tool from the search results onto the canvas directly!
I briefly mentioned configuration as an important step in the process of creating a workflow. Now just as there are configurations for each individual tool there are also configurations you can set for the workflow as a whole. The way you get to that configuration window is to double-click anywhere on the canvas (not on a tool) or you can go to the View on the menu bar above and click Configuration. (see figure 2-18)
The workflow configuration is also an extremely important feature you need to be aware of. It allows you to configure options that affect your entire workflow. There are 5 main tabs that are available by default--let’s dig a little deeper into those.
The Canvas tab in the workflow configuration window pane (see figure 2-19) allows you to set the layout direction of how your tools are presented on the canvas. You can also set the visibility of the annotations on your tools. Annotations are the text that is displayed right beneath or above a tool. Lastly the connection progress visibility is configurable in order to show progress on the tools as the workflow is being completed. This is a really nice feature to see at runtime how much data or how big the data is running through a particular tool.
The workflow tab on the configuration pane (see figure 2-20) gives you a variety of valuable information. First it shows you where the workflow you are working on is actually saved to. It also provides you clarity around what time of file you are building. I will talk a lot more about macros in later chapters. Lastly it describes all the constants that are available in this workflow. Constants are a powerful feature in and of themselves where you have 3 types (Engine, Question, and User) you can tap into for various reasons.
The runtime tab in the workflow configuration pane (see figure 2-21) allows you to modify how your workflow runs when you click the Run button. You have the ability to increase or decrease the memory limit that Alteryx Designers uses in the process of running your workflow. It allows you to change the directory of where the temp files that get created are saved. It also allows you to control the limit of conversion errors as well as set a record limit for all inputs. You also have some nice features you can easily turn on/off as you see necessary.
The events tab in the workflow configuration pane (see figure 2-22) allows you to trigger some event to happen before you run your workflow or after you run. For example if you want to send an email yourself to let you know when the workflow has been completed.
The Meta Info tab on the workflow configuration pane (see figure 2-23) gives you many options that have to do with describing details about your workflow. For example you can use a different name for the workflow than what you saved, you can add a description of the workflow for others to better understand, you can add a URL which is commonly used to provide further help documentation. If you are building a macro or app you also can update tool settings and tool palette information. Lastly you can ensure that the workflow is attributed to someone and their company.
These are all the options you would need to configure your workflow but I want to make sure that you understand another important area you can use and that’s user settings.
Alteryx Designer provides a tremendous amount of options to control the development experience you as a user have. The true power of these user settings is that you can save yourself from having to configure each and every individual workflow and make the configurations at a user level so that they apply across all workflows. User settings has 6 specific tabs of functionality, which I’ll introduce here. You can access your user settings by going to Options > User Settings > Edit User Settings (see figure 2-24)
The defaults tab in user settings allows you to set a global parameter on memory limit and directory as well as a collection of features you can turn on/off as needed (see figure 2-25). To be clear you usually can do just fine by not modifying the settings. A very common configuration change that many users do is to turn off the “Show Start Here at startup” or Turn off the “Pop Up Dialog at Completion of Workflow”
The Dataset Defaults tab (see figure 2-26) allows you to set the specific 3rd party data packages you want to use for each specific functionality. See Chapter 16 for more information about 3rd Party data.
The Canvas tab (see figure 2-27) allows you to change or modify anything to do with the canvas look and feel. From changing the background color to changing the text size and font of annotations. An important feature to call out is the “Display macro indicators on tools”. That is an important one to turn on. I’ll talk more about why in Chapter 13 on Macros
The Advanced tab (see figure 2-28) has many features that you will find useful. You can modify the number of times you can click undo when you are developing workflows. You can choose to display a number of things, such as.... A key feature I would turn on if I were you is the “Display XML in Properties Window”. Also another important feature is the autorecover. As anyone who develops anything in software knows, the worst feeling in the world is losing your work! You can stop that from happening by ensuring you have your autorecover settings correct. It’s turned on by default but you can modify how frequently it saves. You can modify the memory limit per tool as well as enable proxy settings
The Macros tab on the user settings pane (see figure 2-29) is where you can specify a folder either on your machine or a shared folder to act as a repository for macros. This allows Alteryx Designer to load those and make them available each time you open and use Alteryx Designer. You can have many different locations as well.
The Localization tab in the user settings (see figure 2-30) allows you to change the language that is used within Alteryx as well as some key values around handling of numbers, fonts, distance, and even help pages.
Here you have a walkthrough of all the user settings you have available to you. Now it’s important for you to now learn shortcuts to make your workflow building faster and more efficient!
One of the more powerful features of Alteryx is the plethora of keyboard and mouse shortcuts that can be used. Many of the more expert users will say that there are still some additional shortcuts they’d love to see in Alteryx Designer (and I agree!), but there is still a lot that is available today. Now if you set yourself up with a great keyboard and mouse then for those of you who like developing workflows with ease and speed you will have the options available to you. There are far too many shortcuts to cover but I will cover a few areas that I particularly find very useful.
I highly recommend the MX Master Series for a mouse from Logitech. It’s got so many features to it and best of all you can fully configure it to work with Alteryx specifically. You can use one of the side buttons to run the workflow, you can use another to open your configuration windows all without having to drag and click everytime you need it. I assure you that you will love it!
Many of these shortcuts if not all are from a Windows machine perspective since Alteryx is still a windows native application. You can find the latest shortcuts available here: https://help.alteryx.com/current/designer/shortcuts-alteryx-designer
These shortcuts help you make certain windows visible. I particularly don’t like all or many of the windows open while I am building a workflow but only when I need them. If I don’t need the results window at the moment I’d rather have it minimized in order to have the most real estate on my canvas.
|Select the Overview window.||Ctrl + Shift + V|
|Select the Results window.||Ctrl + Shift + G|
|Select the Configuration window.||Ctrl + Shift + C|
|Select the canvas.||Ctrl + Shift + W|
|Select the Interface Designer window.||Ctrl + Shift + D|
The future of developing workflows in seconds lies in these shortcuts! Being able to add tools to the workflow without a mouse allows you to build a workflow almost entirely from a keyboard! First thing you need to do is select the tool palette:
|Select the tool palette||Ctrl + Shift + T|
Next you can use the left & right arrows to navigate the different palettes. Then once you get to the tab you want you can use the down arrow to step into that palette and again use left & right arrows to navigate through the tools in that palette. Once you pick the tool you need then hit Enter and it will be placed on the canvas! Note there are some nuances and priorities that dictate when or where the tool gets added.
For the particular minded users, many of us don’t like having our tools haphazardly thrown around on the canvas. Curved lines drive you crazy? Not having your tools lined up like scratching a chalkboard? Me too. Here’s how you fix that! There are shortcuts that allow you to align a group of selected tools whether vertically or horizontally. You can thank me later.
|Select all items.||Ctrl + A|
|Deselect all selected items.||Ctrl + D|
|Align tools horizontally.||Ctrl Shift -|
|Align tools vertically.||Ctrl Shift +|
These are the basics. You want to be able to open, close, and run a workflow without having to go through menus or click buttons. I get you. Here’s how you do that:
|Run workflow or stop workflow from running.||Ctrl + R|
|Open workflow.||Ctrl + O|
|Close open workflow.||Ctrl + F4|
|Save workflow.||Ctrl + S|
|Save all open workflows.||Ctrl + Shift + S|
|New workflow.||Ctrl + N|
|Move between open workflows.||Ctrl + Tab|
It may take a little while to get some of these shortcuts down but pick a few that you will use all the time and work with those. By far the one most users use is the Ctrl + R to run the workflow. Let’s now jump into looking at some sample workflows and datasets you have available to you.
One of the greatest resources you have at your fingertips is all the Sample Workflows and Datasets that Alteryx Designer comes out of the box with (see figure 2-31). When you first start you most likely fall into one of two camps: You either have a use case that you think Alteryx Designer could help you with or your team or company wants you to use it to help automate some processes. Either way these sample workflows and datasets are available for you to either learn how to build workflows or use tools as well as find more use cases and examples of workflows you could be building. They are such a rich resource that you’ll want to ensure you spend time reviewing them. You can access the Sample Workflows & Datasets by going to the help menu on the top bar.
Very closely related is what is called Starter Kits. With Alteryx Starter Kits (see figure 2-32) you have a ready-to-use set of sample workflows, apps, and macros for a specific focus area.
As of version 2021.2 these are the current starter kits available for download:
Alteryx Analytic Starter Kit
Alteryx Starter Kit for Snowflake
Alteryx Analytic Template for Amazon
Alteryx Customer Analytics Starter Kit
Alteryx Data Blending Starter Kit
Alteryx Office of Finance Starter Kit
Alteryx Public Sector Starter Kit
Alteryx Starter Kit for Human Resources
Alteryx Starter Kit for Intelligence Suite
Alteryx Starter Kit for Marketing Analytics
Alteryx Starter Kit for Microsoft
Alteryx Starter Kit for Qlik
Alteryx Starter Kit for Retail
Alteryx Starter Kit for Salesforce
Alteryx Starter Kit for Spatial Analytics
Alteryx Starter Kit for Tableau
Alteryx Supply Chain Analytics Starter Kit
Banking and Financial Services Analytics Starter Kit
Healthcare Analytics Starter Kit
Predictive Analytics Starter Kit
As mentioned above these starter kits have fully built out workflows that show you how these associated technologies work with Alteryx. For example the Tableau Starter Kit gives you not only a workflow to show you how to connect Alteryx and Tableau but also macros and other assets that you can use in your own workflows! I highly recommend downloading a few when you are getting started.
In Alteryx Designer you have the ability to not only start with the most commonly used tools across users but also to pick and choose which tools you want to ‘keep close’ as you are building workflows. The favorites tool palette, which I mentioned earlier in the chapter, is always easy to get to on the far left of tool palettes. You can ‘star’ any tool to add it to the favorites tool palette or click the star again to remove it. One tip is to use it only for those tools most used that you find yourself searching for. If you put everything as your favorite then nothing is really favorite and you are back where you started.
In this chapter you’ve learned how to build a workflow and the 4 key steps we all use to build efficient and effective workflows. I walked through a simple example to build your own first workflow. First of many, I hope! You’ve learned where the user settings are, how to use shortcuts and some key resources like Sample Workflows & Datasets as well as starter kits and Favorites tools. Remember if you get stuck or are not sure what a tool offers you, you have plenty of options to find help. Easiest being to right click on the tool in the palette and click help. I think the most valuable help you can get is by going to the Alteryx community and posting or reading the discussions. There are thousands of other users that would love to help you and answer any questions you have on your new Alteryx journey. In this next chapter I am going to start to get into the details you need to become amazing at using Alteryx Designer by talking about how you connect to data.