In 1978, while at Harvard Business School, Dan Bricklin struggled to update financial calculations by hand. Bricklin wished he could update one number and have the other numbers recalculate. He imagined what it would be like if he had something like a mouse attached to his calculator. Taking that idea, Bricklin created VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc was the first “killer application.”
Bricklin just wanted to make his calculations a bit easier. He couldn’t have imagined all the things we use spreadsheets for today.
Businesses use spreadsheets for everything. I recently saw a business using Excel to manage scheduling the work of hundreds of employees. I don’t think there was a single number or formula used in the entire sheet.
We see a lot of early stage “software” startups start their process using a spreadsheet. Using Excel is great way to get up and running. It can help validate a startup idea before committing to build software.
But businesses tend to push spreadsheets beyond their limits. And they quickly become too difficult to manage.
The most common reasons spreadsheets break down are:
1. Multiple people need to access the same file.
2. Customers need to interact with their data.
3. The product would benefit from interacting with other services (APIs).
4. The business or its customers want to enter or get data on a mobile device.
5. The business is ready to scale and automate.
For these reasons, many companies are moving away from spreadsheets to cloud-based applications.
Once you’ve identified issues with your company’s current excel-based process, you can start to look for alternatives. In many cases, companies decide to move their Excel-based process to a web application.
Designing and building a web application to replace a spreadsheet creates some unique challenges. One of the advantages of a spreadsheet is that it is infinitely flexible. You can rearrange columns, quickly add rows, and rename things on the fly. But this flexibility creates problems when a lot of people need to share the same sheet. With an application, the basic structure of the data needs to be architected in advance.
How we build applications from spreadsheet-based processes
1. Talk to users
The first thing we do is to talk to the people who will be using the spreadsheet. These could include employees or customers. We want to understand how they do their jobs and what they’re using the spreadsheet for. We want to understand the entire process from the standpoint of each user type.
When we talk to people, we usually find they have other processes they’re doing in tandem with the spreadsheet. For example, we might see a post-it note on their desk with a value they need to enter each time. We can use that knowledge to build those ancillary processes into the application.
Talking to employees has the added benefit of getting their input and buy-in. It’s important for the whole organization to get behind the new application and commit to it (more on that in #5, below).
2. Create a workflow diagram
Once we watch people working, we capture that process in a workflow diagram. The diagram gives us a good idea of the main functions of the spreadsheet. It also alerts us to any edges of the process that we’ll need to consider in the application. We want to get the entire process down.
3. Wireframe key application workflows
Too often people try to design the application to match the spreadsheet one-to-one. But you wouldn’t want to use an app that resembled a spreadsheet. The key is to capture the workflow and value the spreadsheet provides, not the design.
With an application, you have a lot more flexibility to create an intuitive user experience. There are usually better ways to create that value without having a design that looked like your old spreadsheet.
4. See the future
Your spreadsheet represents your process today. You add columns or sheets to your workbook without giving it a second thought. But when you build an app, you’ll want to at least have an idea about where the business could go. With a good architecture in place, you should be able to continue to make changes and grow your app. Knowing the potential directions in advance can make future changes much easier.
5. Commit to the new application
When the application is ready, it’s important for the whole company to commit to using it. It’s too easy for employees to go back to the old way of using the spreadsheet. But storing data in multiple places makes it difficult to adopt the new application.
Spreadsheets in Your Business
What spreadsheets are you using in your business? You’re probably using a few. Have you noticed any limitations? Keep an eye out for opportunities to convert them to an application.
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