25. November 2019

Spreadsheets lack people skills 

Spreadsheets are frequently shared or their findings reported on but the manner in which this is commonly done is counter-productive and kills the spreadsheet's valuable features.­­

Spreadsheets are these amazing productivity tools that enable regular knowledge workers to get all sorts of stuff done without having to rely on IT, BI or other specialists: Small databases, numerical models, even standing up and driving simple business processes. It is frankly amazing that there is such a versatile, powerful tool that approximately 1 in 5 adults on the planet know how to use! But a spreadsheet is rarely built to be used only by its’ author. Spreadsheets are frequently shared or their findings reported on.

One study found that less than 12% of people say their spreadsheets are for personal use, and the more time the respondents spent using spreadsheet software, the more likely they were to share them with larger audiences. Nevertheless, spreadsheet software is almost exclusively focused on building the spreadsheet and pays little or no attention to requirements around sharing and communicating the findings.

Distributing spreadsheets

The most common distribution model for spreadsheets — by far— is as an attachment to an email. However, the author usually needs to prepare the workbook in various ways first:

- Build a narrative around it, that often goes into the body of the email
- Carefully detract data that is not to be shared
- Format the output so that it is easier to consume
- Build in guidance so that the recipients know which inputs they are expected and allowed to change and play around with

And even with careful preparation, there is, nevertheless, a certain loss of control by the author. They can’t stop the recipients from distributing the spreadsheet further; people tamper with things they weren’t supposed to, they frequently change things and send them back which leads to a multitude of versions with no trail of changes and no clear master copy.

Being on the receiving end also has its challenges:

- Spreadsheets are particularly hard to discern and use on mobile devices
- The narrative, whether in an email or orally presented, is out of context when looking at the numbers
- There is very little guidance as to how to read or interact with the model

That being said, we haven’t even mentioned the aesthetics that probably affect both the author and the recipients: regardless of how good the author is at choosing cell background colors and fonts, making a truly *beautiful* spreadsheet is beyond the skill set of most of us.

One might think that sharing online spreadsheets — such as Google Sheets and Excel Online — addressed some of these problems, but in reality, they hardly do. They use very much the same paradigm as their predecessors have on the PC for 40 years, except now in the browser.Collaboration on the authoring side is really online spreadsheets’ killer feature.

 (Side note: online spreadsheets with multiple authors are usually data collection efforts. It is very rare to see a spreadsheet with a numerical model that has multiple authors.)

Let’s make it a report

In many cases, the challenges with sharing and communicating directly with spreadsheets mean that authors resort to distribution through other types of documents such as slide decks, word processing documents made into PDFs or emails with pasted charts and tables.

This — in turn — comes with a new set of challenges, often requiring a lot of manual labor to maintain these artifacts and the obvious loss of the most distinguishing feature of a spreadsheet: that it is not a static thing but a beautiful, living numerical model. Interaction, exploration and drill-down are all gone when a spreadsheet is turned into a static report.

PDFs and PowerPoint files is where spreadsheets go to die. RIP ⚰️ 

If only there was a better way…


Coincidentally… :)

At GRID we are building a solution that makes communicating with data and numbers just as easy as with the written word, leveraging people’s spreadsheet skills to allow them to build modern, interactive web documents directly on top of existing spreadsheet files.

Go ahead and sign up to be part of the GRID beta family and give those spreadsheets wings!

This article has also been published on Medium.

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