25. October 2019

Spreadsheets as a UI pattern  -  leveraging knowledge workers' existing skills 

After a somewhat quiet decade or so, the last few years have seen a significant uptick in innovation in the productivity tool space. The success of products such as Slack and Airtable has shown that there is room for newcomers, and that entry into this market isn’t completely blocked by Microsoft (and to a lesser extentGoogle).

For GRID, the spreadsheet market is where we play and — mostly because of how little information we’ve put out there publicly — the most common misconception about what we’re doing is that we’re building a new spreadsheet in direct competition with Excel and Google Sheets.

(We’re not.)

There is a graveyard full of companies that have looked at this market and decided to either make a new spreadsheet, or make something that’s not a spreadsheet, but supposed to replace spreadsheets with something different/better. I believe the theories behind these products have often missed how engrained spreadsheets are in the business world, and how wide their range of usage is — including for things they were never designed to do.

What has proven more successful is to deeply understand a subset of use-cases currently solved with spreadsheets and focusing on doing them better. In fact one might claim that from the introduction of VisiCalc 40 years ago as the first successful B2B software tool for the PC market, most B2B software has been the result of cleaving off something a spreadsheet was used for and doing it better. Even today, many startups’ fiercest competition comes from home-grown spreadsheets— and many of them still loose.

But I feel that there is a paradigm emerging: Software that uses spreadsheet-like user interfaces, UX patterns and even formula language as a way for everyday spreadsheet users to quickly familiarize themselves with a new piece of software that — from the UX perspective — could just as well have gone a more“traditional” route. The benefit? A billion people are already familiar with spreadsheet software and instantly approach anything that looks like a spreadsheet with a certain set of assumptions and familiarity. Done well, this can shorten people’s learning curve dramatically and enable them to quickly become productive with something that might otherwise feel quite intimidating.

Examples of this include:

  • Spreadsheet-like-data-integration: Using spreadsheet-like interfaces to enable end-users to do data integration.

             - Examples: dashdash and ActiondeskSupermetrics does a similar job, but goes the opposite way, providing an add-in to existing spreadsheets.

  • Spreadsheet-to-API: Enabling API access     to data in existing spreadsheets.

             - Example:  sheetlabs


  • Spreadsheet-as-CMS: Using spreadsheets to edit and control web site content.

    - Example: sheet2site


  • Spreadsheet-to-app: Low-code / no-code ways for turning spreadsheets into web or mobile applications.

         - Examples: glideAppSheetOpen as AppAppizy , SpreadsheetWEBMolnifySheetSu

A few of these companies straddle a couple of categories, and each of them has a slightly different approach and target market. Some of them probably don’t even agree with my characterization of what they do!

But what they have in common is the realization that users can quickly become productive doing — often complicated tasks — if they can leverage their existing spreadsheet skills and assets.

This article has also been published on Medium.

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