I Wrote a Software II: The Problem (aka Opportunity)

We keep collaborating with Excel despite the deficiencies

Despite all the collaboration opportunities provided for next to no cost by the likes of Trello, Office365, Google Apps, Zoho, Box, Huddle people keep finding a use case for emailing an Excel document around. And then they struggle when they sent out the wrong version or someone wants to make an update etc etc.

Office 365 has an online version of Excel. It’s sort of somewhere between “real” Excel and Google Sheets. But without much consideration for usability. Here are a few things that I have been enjoying recently:

  1. When I first open a spreadsheet I have to press a button to be able to edit it (unlike Google Docs where I can type straight away)
  2. Before I can sort or filter an online spreadsheet I have to click a mysterious button called “Format as Table”. Given that sort and filter is one of the main use cases for Excel it’s a bit bizarre to make users make additional clicks and expend additional cognitive effort to unlock that feature.
  3. There’s no freaking strikethrough.
  4. Where is the version history?

If only they had called it something different so people didn’t think it was equivalent to Excel. The surveys feature looks neat though it’s just a me-too version of Google Forms. But there are plenty of irritations that just add up.

To be fair to (real) Excel, Spreadsheet Inquire looks pretty neat. It lets you compare different spreadsheets to find the differences. This should be really useful where you have different people updating different copies of the same spreadsheet.
I have yet to see it in real life as apparently the licensing restrictions are pretty tight. But my instinct is that it’s going to be really hard to use and that will put people off.

Excel alone just isn’t practical enough to justify the amount work we do with it in a collaborative business setting.

Browsers considered dangerous

The traditional solution to this is to build database-backed systems that are accessed through a browser. It is perfectly standard to think it is a good thin an for application to be “web-based” rather than to require a custom fat client. Makes sense because the costs of supporting a piece of custom software on any kind of PC/tablet configuration can be huge. Why not use a web browser which is a more or less standardised piece of software already on everyone’s PC.

The problem here is that web browsers are weak when it comes to handling tabular data. The TABLE element in HTML is pretty much unused. Everyone who wants a table ends up having to define their own approach rather than using something standard. And many business applications are about manipulating a table of data.

Opinionated Excel?

Hmmm, I wonder if there is another piece of widely-installed and widely-supported software that we can expect business people have access to. One that is good at laying out tabular data? What happens if you start thinking of Excel as the UI layer in your system? Of course Excel has an enormous amount of power and so to effectively use it as a front-end that doesn’t then screw up data integrity you would need to take a leaf out of the success of the Rails framework, and how it transformed web development by defining an opinionated way of using the Ruby programming language. I wonder how much appetite there is to work to an opinionated way of producing Excel.


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