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7 Ways to Improve Excel Spreadsheet Usability
Have you ever had to use a spreadsheet that was hard to follow or full of numbers? If you are, you will begin to understand the importance of good design and layout. The other day, an acquaintance sent me an Excel spreadsheet that he had created for himself and thought might be useful for others. Here was a spreadsheet created by someone who knows formulas and functions well. But… it wasn’t clear at first glance what to do with it. Do I click one of these buttons? Do I need to enter some information? Where do I enter the data?
Upon closer examination, the following issues made its use difficult:
– There was no title or title.
– It was very dense in terms of the number of cells on the screen.
– Cell ranges were formatted with five different colors. What did it all mean?
– Help was limited to short comments in some cells and some were hidden in columns.
– Data entry and results sections were not clearly separated.
– Macro buttons were square.
The bottom line was that I just didn’t want to use this particular spreadsheet, despite its useful calculations. So what could have been done to make it better? Here are 7 tips to help you create more user-friendly spreadsheets.
1/ Think about the end user
Who will use the spreadsheet? Do they know Excel? Are they familiar with the content of the spreadsheet? The answers to these questions will determine the layout, security concerns, amount of help provided, and possibly formatting.
2/ Correct placement
It often helps to put pen to paper and sketch out the rough layout of the spreadsheet beforehand. It’s easier to change things at this stage than when the chart is well underway.
3/ Provide adequate assistance
There are many ways to help. This could be a title or heading that describes what the table is or does, a comment in a cell, information related to data validation, information in a text box, a separate worksheet, or even separate documentation. The amount of help offered depends on the intuitiveness of using the spreadsheet and also on the answer to this first question, WHO are you going to use a spreadsheet?
4/ Separate data input from results
Areas in the data entry table should be kept separate from areas that provide calculation results. Failure to do so can cause confusion for the end user and make the table more difficult to maintain. This separation may involve using separate worksheets or simply ensuring that the two areas are clearly separated on a single worksheet.
5/ THE KISS
Too much information on one worksheet can be overwhelming, and generally simpler is better. The spreadsheet mentioned at the beginning of this article could have been improved by spreading the information to other worksheets. Other ways to achieve a simpler look include:
– Using charts to convey information instead of data tables.
– Increasing the row height so that the worksheet is not too dense with data.
– Shading every other line in the worksheet where it is a light color is many numbers.
6/ Consider the normal flow of the document
The usual way to read a book, newspaper or just text on the screen is from left to right and top to bottom. Your spreadsheet should also follow this practice. Information that the user needs to see first or respond to first should be in the top left corner or top center.
7/ Description format
The rule of thumb is; format for description, not decoration. What looks good to one person may look terrible to another. Multiple colors can be confusing and again, generally speaking, simpler is better. If you have created a table or database in Excel, the headings may be bolded to separate them from the data. Perhaps more important than the choice of format is that it be consistent throughout the document.
Stick to conventions
I mentioned before that the hard-to-use table had square buttons. If you look at almost any website using a button, the width-to-height ratio will be roughly between 2:1 and 5:1. Sizes too far outside of this range look a bit odd and aren’t as easy to identify as buttons.
Hyperlinks created in Excel can be formatted in any color, but unless there’s a good reason, stick to the familiar blue and underlined color, as in Excel Productivity Tips. Spreadsheet templates that previously shipped with 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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