Spreadsheet design

I do a lot of Excel magic at work and have been thinking about spreadsheet design for a while now, mostly because of Non-designer’s Design Book I read a few months ago. But based on the feedback I got, this is not something you would want to put on your UX portfolio – there are more important things after all. And, well, those are just spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are boring.

But they don’t have to be.

The world would be a better place if analysts, accountants and other number crunchers learned about information architecture and design principles. Ugly spreadsheets are often just a waste of time because in the end no one pays attention to them unless they really have to. And when they have to, they cry.

Badly designed spreadsheets are like badly designed intranets – people spend more time being confused than doing actual work.

When Boring meets Design

For a while now I’ve been producing a bunch of monthly web traffic reports for our sales teams. The reports were designed by another web analyst a few years ago, and it’s quite funny that when I took over, every month someone would come back pointing out that a website was missing or something was broken… And it meant only one thing: no one paid attention and noticed that before. Why? Because those bloody things were badly designed and overloaded with data.

So I’ve decided to put my UX hat on and take the spreadsheet design seriously. I talked to sales people to better understand how they work, when they access my reports, why they don’t use them (too big, too slow to open, too much data, can’t find things), what information they need to do their job etc. Technically you could even call it a contextual inquiry. (I happen to sit next to one sales team – it’s the worst possible place for an analyst, but at least observing them in their natural habitat was easier).

For another report I went a step further and organised an online card sorting exercise to improve information grouping and labelling – that’s the only thing you can do when you have a long, random list of items and sorting them alphabetically makes no sense. Well, you can do this or cry and curse.

Later, I gathered the data and started playing with spreadsheets: added any missing information, changed labels, moved things around, deleted stuff, simplified, grouped, added contrast and headers…

And people were happy. They actually started looking at the reports and using them.

It wasn’t a glamorous job – those are just spreadsheets after all. But it was important: now sales people can spend less time searching for information and more time on the phone, talking to clients and backing up their claims with stats. And earning money for my salary.

~Falka, 24 March 12