The Joy of Excel


Yes it’s unusual to talk about UX away from web and ecommerce but so what, Excel is UX on legs.  Ok that’s two gratuitous puns too many but I was writing about risk management last time and it does that to you.  If you like to divide people into two camps (I know, there are those that like to do this and those that don’t) there are those that admit they love Excel and those that pretend otherwise – but everyone likes it – or loves it.  And yeah I know about Lotus 1-2-3 and I’m old enough to have used it but that’s history, get over it.

Excel is the perfect partner to Word, as numeracy is to literacy.  In fact, they could have called it Number but maybe they were wise to the fact that the concept of a spreadsheet (the huge bits of paper that hardcore accountants used to use to do their numbers on) would become a metaphor for what is in fact tables and records and things like that.  Metaphors are a big thing in computing but more on that another time.

It feels like the whole world uses Excel, in their work but also at home, even if that isn’t quite true.  Yes people still use it for balancing accounts but also for lists, managing projects (who can be arsed with the bastard child that is MS Project anyway), databases, reporting and anything else you fancy.  In fact, this versatility creates an End User Computing risk in some organisations as smart people in the business start to build non-supportable critical applications – ok UX can maybe create risk too!  People use it at home also – for balancing accounts, managing projects…the same things actually.

So what’s good about it?  The concept is great, columns and rows, lists and records.  You sort everything out, fair and square in nice little boxes and then do clever things very easily and then get to make it look good with charts and so on.  I’d bet there’s a lot of people who avoid going to parties to spend time at home on a pivot table.  Excel is easy to use but the fundamental concept puts you in control of whatever it is you want to do.  User Experience frequently takes account of putting users in control because they are people and people like control whether they admit it or not.  You want simplicity but you want control and sometimes these things seem at odds, ie simplicity = less functionality but control = more.

Giles Colborne of CX Partners wrote a great book called Simple and Usable which describes four strategies: Hide, Organise, Remove, Displace.  I like to turn these into the ironic mnemonic, HORD.  The key thing is to get shot of what’s needed and put occasional/first time functionality out of the way to retain simplicity.  This is what control means.  Over the years, Excel has grown and grown till its groaned.  Just how many toolbars were there?  The whole Office suite was exploding with functionality and something needed to be done, hence the move to the ribbon.  I’ve heard also that Microsoft got tired of requests for functionality that already existed so they made better use of the menu space by making it context sensitive.  The move to the ribbon in Office 2007 upset the hardcore Excelers.  Why move stuff?  Users were lost, for a little while.  I trust they did a proper information architecture research job to structure and label the information in the minds of the user.  But change is change and however good it was it was a major disruption to people’s habits.  It was a big step but it highlights the power of convention in usability.  If you’re used to it, it works, warts and all.  If you use Microsoft products then getting another one makes life easy because you get the layout and look-and-feel without having to think about it.  What’s best is not always ‘best’ in the eyes of the techy purist.  I think that simple fact, alongside compatibility and integration, is one of the biggest reasons why Microsoft dominates – it’s not just slick marketing.  Go on, mention the decline in Internet Explorer but face it, the controls are more on the websites than the actual browser so who cares.

Excel is probably the best thing Microsoft has ever done – and maybe will ever do.  They were lucky to popularise a great concept but they’ve done a great UX job on it nonetheless.  Whole businesses run on Excel (even if they don’t realise it) and whole households run on it too, from a simple list to a sophisticated database/reporting engine.  Excel gives everyone control and everyone the chance to be a spreadsheet geek; maybe the only thing it’s not good for is blogging.

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