How to Use Alteryx to Build Your First Workflow

Alteryx is a low-code / no-code platform that lets you build data processing workflows by connecting and configuring a series of tools that you can drag and drop onto a canvas or white space to view the data transformations like you would a diagram. It’s a simple but extremely powerful way to interact with data.

You can use Alteryx to build your first workflow, speed up data processing or automate processes all together with a low code no code environment

We’ll explain the different components of the Alteryx Platform, and show you the steps needed to build your first data processing workflow from beginning to end to help users get started using Alteryx. Whether you work in accounting, operations or IT, Alteryx is a platform that can help non-technical users solve many of the most common and some of the uncommon problems with data.

Let’s jump in!

The Components of the Alteryx Platform

Alteryx sells several different products, but the two primary ones are Alteryx Designer and Server. Alteryx Designer is installed on your computer, licensed individually and used to build data processing workflows. Server runs on a separate machine and enables users to schedule workflows among other enterprise features.

Most users new to Alteryx will start by downloading Alteryx Designer from the Alteryx Community Site to their Windows Laptop or Desktop. You’ll be required to setup a login and password to sign into the site. Once installed, you can begin building your first workflow.

The Alteryx Designer Interface

To build your first workflow, you will need to navigate the Alteryx Designer Interface. Tools, or data transformation steps, are represented by colorful icons in the Alteryx Toolbar. Tools are dragged and dropped into a Canvas, or white space that creates a process diagram. Tools are connected with lines, and processed when pressing “Run”

The screenshot below shows the different components of the interface.

Screenshot of the Alteryx Interface and the different components numbered and highlighted
  1. Alteryx Toolbar – This is where all the different data transformation steps are stored. There are categories for data prep, joining data, parsing, transforming etc. Alteryx has over 100 tools available, but realistically most people will use the same 20 or so.
  2. The Alteryx Canvas – The canvas is a white box where tools are dragged and dropped from the toolbar and connected. This creates a process flow diagram.
  3. Configuration Panel – Each Tool has settings, the settings are configured using the configuration panel. Each Tool has its own settings that are unique to the transformation being performed.
  4. Workflow Results – Every time you “Run” a Workflow, you can see the results of the transformation steps. Click on the green dot to the left or right of any tool in the canvas to preview your data at that point in time.
  5. Run Button – Alteryx Designer only processes data when you press “Run”. Even with live connections to SQL databases, nothing happens until asking Alteryx to process the data at which point it’s imported into your local machine to apply the data transformation steps in your workflow.

We presented a fairly simple workflow in our example where 4 tools are connected. Data Input, Filtering, Sorting, and Data Output. Workflows range from using handful of connected tools to over a hundred connected tools for complex workflows.

Adding an Input Tool to a Workflow

To add data to an Alteryx Workflow, navigate to the In/Out section of the Alteryx Toolbar. Select the Input Tool and drag and drop it into your canvas, or white space in Alteryx Designer. Choose a file or database connection by pressing “Setup a Connection”.

The screenshot below shows us selecting an Input Data Tool from the In/Out section and placing it into the Alteryx Canvas. When the tool is selected on eth canvas, you’ll see the configuration options on the left side.

Click “Setup a Connection”, even if you are connecting to a local Excel or CSV file Alteryx considers this a connection. The terminology covers SQL databases, cloud services, and local files.

Dragging and dropping an Input Data Tool to start a new workflow

A dialog box will appear where you can choose to connect to Files, such as XLSX or CSV, The Data Sources section lets you connect to SQL Databases or Cloud Services such as SharePoint, OneDrive and AWS.

The input data setup a connection dialog box in Alteryx

Alteryx supports connections to most common and many less common data sources. Be aware that not all of the connections listed work out of the box. You may have to download specific connections from the Alteryx Marketplace and in many cases IT support is required to set them up.

In our example, we’ll import a CSV file from our local computer.

Next we’ll press the Blue Rectangular “Run” button in the top right of Alteryx Designer to make sure that our data was imported correctly. You can also press “CTRL + R” on your keyboard to Run a workflow.

Example of an input tool and the workflow results after pressing run

You can preview the data by selecting the green node to the right of a tool. This node is the “Output” of a tool. The workflow results below show a preview of your data at that point in processing.

Next, we’ll add additional tools to our workflow.

Connecting Additional Tools to a Workflow

To connect tools in an Alteryx Workflow, drag and drop a new tool from the Alteryx Toolbar to the Canvas. When the icon is close to the output node of another tool a dashed grey line will appear. Release the mouse button, and the two tools will be connected. You can also drag from the green output node of one tool to the input node of another.

In the example below we want to connect the Filter Tool to an Input Tool. We’ll do this by dragging and dropping the new Filter Tool to the right of the Input Data Tool.

Dragging and dropping a second tool to Alteryx and Connecting it

As you drag thew new Filter Tool close to the Input Tool, a dashed grey line appears showing that they two will be connected when you release the mouse button. Upon release tools will be connected with a solid black line.

Example of connected tools in Alteryx that auto-connect

To manually connect tools, drag a new tool far enough away from the first tool so that Alteryx does not attempt to auto-connect the two. Then drag from the output node of one tool to the input node of the other tool. Connecting tools goes left to right, or output to input. If you attempt to connect going the other direction, a tool will be moved around and won’t let you drag your mouse to create a connecting line between tools.

You can connect as many tools as you want in this method, and you can even split your workflow into multiple parts to have one output go to several different tools at the same time.

Here are a couple examples of a linear process flow.

Example of a one to one connection in Alteryx

Alternatively, you can also go from one tool to many, or have multiple workflows built off of one input, or one point in time.

Example of a one to many connection in Alteryx

Configuring Alteryx Tools

Each data transformation step added to an Alteryx Workflow needs to be configured. For example, if you want to Filter data, add a Filter Tool. Then tell the Filter Tool which column you want to filter by and the filtering criteria. Tools are configured after they are added to the Canvas in the Configuration Panel to the Left side of Alteryx Designer.

The example below shows a Filter Tool being configured to Filter the Category Column for the word “Chocolate Chip” in our cookie sales data set.

Screenshot of configuring a Filter Tool in as part of a larger Alteryx workflow

Every tool has its own unique configuration options, but they will all appear on the left side of the screen in the configuration panel. After configuring a tool, you can press “Run” to process the change and preview the results in the workflow results pane at the bottom of the page.

Outputting Data

After creating a workflow, you can output the data by connecting an Output Data Tool from the In/Out section of the Alteryx Toolbar. Connect it to the end of your workflow, and press “Setup a Connection”. This lets you choose a file type or database location to output the data. Configure the tool and press “Run” to output data.

How to Output Data from Alteryx at the end of a Workflow

The selection options for the Output Data Tool are mostly the same as the Input Data Tool. When selecting a file output type, you’ll notice that the process is almost the same as the Input Data process.

Once the Output Tool is configured, press the “Run” button to import data, apply connected data transformation steps and output a new file.

Scheduling Workflows

Alteryx Workflows can only be scheduled to run using Alteryx Server and not Alteryx Designer installed on your local computer. Alteryx Server is a separate paid product from Alteryx Designer and is targeted at businesses and enterprises in both cost and IT infrastructure support required to set one up.

Once an Alteryx Server is setup, you can publish workflows from Alteryx Designer to the Server and set specific times and frequencies that a workflow can run. This may take additional preparation though, as your workflow will have a different level of access to files and databases than a separate server machine will have.

Conclusion

To build your first workflow in Alteryx, download Alteryx Designer to your Windows Computer. Get familiar with the interface, then drag and drop tools from the toolbar to the canvas. Connect the tools together, and configure each one. Use the Run button and Workflow Results pane to keep track of the process along the way. Then add an Output Tool to write the data when you’re done.

Alteryx can at times seem overwhelming at first but a majority of workflows involve using the same dozen or two dozen different tools and connecting them in different combinations. In a way, it’s like working in Microsoft Excel that supports hundreds of functions, but most users will only use a handful of them applied in different ways.

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