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How to Create Sigmoid Curves in Tableau

Updated: 5 hours ago

The following blog by Brian Moore was originally published on Do Mo(o)re With Data January 19, 2022 and is cross-posted here with permission. Brian is a Tableau Ambassador and a Senior Data Analytics and Viz Consultant for Cleartelligence.


This is the third and final part of our series on creating curved elements in Tableau. Although this post covers new and different techniques, I would recommend checking out Part 1 of the series here as some of the concepts overlap. This post will focus on sigmoid curves and a few different techniques to build them, depending on what you’re trying to do and what your data looks like. To follow along, you can download the sample data here, and the sample workbook here.

Sigmoid Curves


This is a sigmoid curve. Whether you realize it or not, these curves are everywhere on Tableau Public. Sankeys? Sigmoid Curves. Curvy lines on a map? Sigmoid Curves. Curvy bump charts, or curvy slope charts, or curvy dendrograms, or curvy area charts? All Sigmoid Curves. The main difference between this type of curve and the Bezier curves we discussed in Part 2 of this series, is that only 2 points are needed to draw a Sigmoid Curve. If you have the start point, the end point, and the right formulas, the math will take over and create that nice symmetric s-shaped curve for you. So what formulas should you use? The answer is, as with most things in Tableau, it depends. We’re going to cover two different models for drawing Sigmoid curves, we’ll call them the ‘Standard’ model, and the ‘Dynamic’ model.


Think about most of the chart types that use sigmoid Curves. Sankeys, Curvy slope or bump charts, dendrograms…they all have something in common. The start of the lines and the end of the lines are uniform. If they are running from left to right, the start of all of the lines share an X value, and the end of all of the lines share an X value (columns). If they are running from top to bottom, the start of all of the lines share a Y value, and the end of all of the lines share a Y value (rows). When these conditions are true, which they will be in 99% of the applications in Tableau, you can use the ‘Standard’ model. If either of those conditions are not true, you can use the ‘Dynamic’ model.

Since the majority of the time you will be using the ‘Standard’ model, let’s start with that one.


Building Your Data Source

To build our data source we are going to follow the same process that we did in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. We are going to create additional points by joining our sample data to a densification table using join calculations (value of 1 on each side of the join). For this first example, we are going to use the sheet titled ‘Slope Chart’ for our sample data, and the sheet titled ‘SigmoidModel’ for our densification table. You can download the sample files here.


Here is our sample file that we will use to draw 12 curved lines, from left to right.

You may notice that the densification table looks a little different. In previous parts of this series, the densification table was a single column with numbers 1 thru however many points you wanted to create. For this model, we have 2 columns, ‘t’ and ‘Path’. The Path value will be used to tell Tableau how to connect the points (think connect the dots). The ‘t’ value is going to be used to draw the curve and will be a value evenly spaced between -6 and 6. For our example, we are using 24 points, so we will have a value at every .5 increment (-6, -5.5, -5, …). If you want your curve to be a little smoother, you could use 48 points and have a value at every .25 increment (-6, -5.75, -5.5, …). Really, you can use any number of points, you’ll just need to do the math to get t values that are evenly spaced between -6 and 6. Why -6 and 6? I have absolutely no idea and I’m not going to pretend to. I’m just here to show you how to make cool curvy things, and to do this cool curvy thing, you need values evenly spaced between -6 and 6.


Here is our densification table:

Building Your Calculations

Once we join those files together, there are only two calculations needed to turn the points from our sample data into curved lines.


Sigmoid

1/(1+EXP(1)^-[T])


Curve

[Start Position] + (([End Position] – [Start Position]) * [Sigmoid])


Essentially what these calculations are doing are determining the total vertical distance that needs to be travelled (End Position – Start Position) and then the Sigmoid function spaces these points appropriately on the Y axis to create the S-shaped curve. Let’s build our view and then come back to this.

Build Your Curves

Follow the steps below to build your curves:

  • Right click on the [T] field, drag it to columns, and when prompted, choose the top option ‘T’ without aggregation

  • Right click on the [Curve] field, drag it to rows, and when prompted, choose the top option ‘Curve’ without aggregation

  • Change [LineID] to a Dimension, and drag it to color

  • Change the Mark Type to ‘Line’

  • For this example, you may not need to address the ‘Path’, but I find it’s good practice when dealing with lines and polygons.

  • Right click on the [Path] field, drag it to Path, and when prompted, choose the top option ‘Path’ without aggregation

When you finish, your worksheet should look like this:

With just two calculations, we were able to draw those nice curved lines. Let’s quickly re-visit those calcs. Our Sigmoid calculation is a mathematical function with values ranging between 0 and 1 depending on the ‘T’ value. The table below shows the Sigmoid Value for each T value and the second row shows the difference from the previous value. Notice that at the beginning and the end, the values don’t change much from one step to the next, but towards the middle the values change much more rapidly. And where T=0, the value is .5.

Now let’s look at that in context with our lines and with our Curve calculation. Notice that the vertical position for each of the points on the line doesn’t change much at the beginning or the end, but does change rapidly as it approaches the center. And the center of each line is exactly half way between the starting position and the ending position.

For example, Line 4 starts at position 4 and ends at position 10. At T=0, the vertical position is at 7, halfway between 4 and 10. Let’s plug this line into our calculation. Remember, from the table above, the value of Sigmoid at T=0 is .5


Curve = [Start Position] + (([End Position] – [Start Position]) * [Sigmoid])

or

Curve = 4 + ((10 – 4) * .5) = 7


And let’s do this with one other point, just for good measure. If we look at the table above, we see that the Sigmoid value at T=-3 is .047


Curve = 4 + ((10 – 4) * .047) = 4.28


If you look at the image above, you’ll notice that at T=-3, the vertical position is just above the 4, or 4.28 to be exact. That’s enough math for now, let’s look at some other fun examples.


More Examples – Dendrogram

Now let’s follow the same exact process for the curvy slope chart above, but change up our data a little bit. For this example we are going to use the sheet titled ‘Dendrogram’ for our data, and we’ll use the same ‘SigmoidModel’ sheet for our densification. Here is our sample data.

In this example, our starting position is the same for all of our lines and is halfway between the minimum end position (1) and the maximum end position (12). If you follow the same process your sheet should look something like this.

Now just for fun, let’s make that starting point dynamic. Create a numeric parameter called [Dynamic_Start] and then create a new field called [Dynamic_Curve]. This will be exactly the same as our [Curve] calculation but we’ll replace the [Start_Position] field with [Dynamic_Start].


Dynamic Curve

[Dynamic Start] + (([End Position] – [Dynamic Start]) * [Sigmoid])


Now in your view, just replace the [Curve] field on Rows with the [Dynamic Curve] field and you should have something like this.

More Examples – Sankey

This is not going to be an in-depth tutorial on how to create Sankey diagrams. People much smarter than me (check out flerlagetwins.com) have written many posts and shared many templates for anyone interested in building one. This section will be dedicated more to the mechanics of a Sankey diagram and how we can take what we’ve already learned in the previous examples and apply them towards building a Sankey diagram. The one main difference between what we’ve done so far and what we’re going to do now lies in the Mark Type. It’s time for some polygon fun.


Essentially what we need to do is draw 2 lines for every 1 ‘Sankey Line’ and then connect them together. Typically, you would use table calculations in Tableau to figure out the positions of these lines, but we are going to keep it simple and use some data from our sample file. What we’re actually building is probably more of a Slope Chart, since each segment will be of equal width, but the fundamentals are the same as with a true Sankey Diagram. For this example we are going to use the sheet titled ‘Sankey’ and for our densification we’re going to use the sheet titled ‘SankeyModel’. Here is our sample data

You may notice that this densification table has some additional data. It has twice as many records and a new column called ‘Side’ with values ‘Min’ and ‘Max’. This is because for each segment, or ‘Sankey Line’ we will actually be drawing two lines, a Min Line and a Max Line.


Here’s out densification data: