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7 Ways to Improve Excel Spreadsheet Usability
Have you ever used a spreadsheet that was hard to follow, or overwhelmed with numbers? If you have, you will begin to appreciate the importance of good design and layout. The other day, someone I know sent me an Excel spreadsheet he had created for his own use, and thought it might be useful to others. Here is a spreadsheet made by someone who has a good knowledge of formulas and functions. But … it wasn’t clear at first what to do with it. Do I click one of these buttons? Do I need to enter data? Where do I enter the data?
At a closer look, these were the problems that made it difficult to use:
– There was no title or title.
– It was very dense in terms of the number of cells showing on the screen.
– List of cells are formatted in five different colors. What did it all mean?
– The help provided was limited to short comments in some cells, and some of them were in hidden columns.
– Data input sections and output sections were not clearly separated.
– The macro buttons were square in shape.
The bottom line was that I didn’t want to use this particular spreadsheet, except for the useful calculations. So what could be done to make it better? Here are 7 tips to help you create more usable spreadsheets.
1/ Consider the End User
Who will use the spreadsheet? Do they have knowledge of Excel? Are they knowledgeable about the contents of the spreadsheet? The answers to these questions will determine the nature, security issues, amount of help provided, and possible formatting.
2/ Get the Right Design
It’s usually helpful to put pen to paper and draw a rough layout of the spreadsheet beforehand. It’s easier to change things at this stage than when the spreadsheet is running smoothly.
3/ Offer Adequate Help
There are many ways to provide assistance. It can be a title or heading that describes what a spreadsheet is or does, a description in a cell, information associated with data validation, information in a text box, a separate worksheet, or separate documents. The amount of help provided will be determined by how intuitively you use the spreadsheet and the answer to this first question, WHO are you going to use a spreadsheet?
4/ Separate Data Input from Output
Areas of the spreadsheet for data entry should be kept separate from areas that provide calculation results. If not done, it can be confusing for the end user, and difficult to maintain the spreadsheet. This separation may involve using different worksheets, or simply ensuring a clear distinction between two areas on the same worksheet.
Too much information on one worksheet can be overwhelming, and in general, simpler is better. The spreadsheet mentioned at the beginning of this article could be improved by spreading the information to other worksheets. Some ways to achieve a simple look are:
– Using charts to convey information rather than lists of data.
– Increase the row length so that the worksheet is not too crowded with data.
– Scratch every second row on the worksheet with the lightest color where it is zi many numbers.
6/ Consider the Normal Flow of the document
The normal way to read a book, newspaper or just a text on the screen is left to right and top to bottom. Your spreadsheet should follow this convention. The information that the user should see first or respond to first should be in the top left or top center.
7/ Format of Statement
The rule of thumb is; presentation format, not decoration. What seems good to one person may seem bad to another. More colors can be confusing, and again, it’s usually easier. If you have created a table or database in Excel, headings can be drawn to separate these from the data. Perhaps more important than formatting choices is consistency throughout the document.
I mentioned earlier that the buttons on the spreadsheet that were difficult to use were the square ones. If you look at just about any website using a button, the width-to-height ratio falls roughly in the range of 2:1 to about 5:1. Sizes that are too far outside of this range look odd, and aren’t as easy as buttons.
Hyperlinks that you create in Excel can be formatted any color you like, but unless there is a good reason, stick with the well-known blue and the line below, as in, ExcelProductivityTips. The spreadsheet templates that were used to export through Excel were formatted in light yellow for data entry areas, and light green for results. Some people still use this convention.
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