Monday, August 11, 2008

Top Five Spreadsheet Rules

Remember this quote from Hal Varian: So what’s getting ubiquitous and cheap? Data. And what is complementary to data? Analysis.

And some of my earliest words on this site: It is true. I like collecting data. I have epic spreadsheets full of data.

Then much more recently I said my guiding principles of spreadsheet design to follow shortly, so as you'd expect, here's a top five:

  1. No bitmaps. No logos. No extra graphics whatsoever. The spreadsheet should look nice, of course, but it should look nice because of the clarity and elegance of the information presented within it.

  2. No extra colours, lines, shades, formats. Less strictly observed than the rule above, but a rule nonetheless. Of course there should be colours, lines, shades - plenty of them, as many as needed - but it should all be there only to segment and highlight the areas that need it. There should not be "extra" formatting.

  3. No macros. Obviously, because they could harbour viruses. Less obviously, because they are hidden, because they need to be applied separately. Everything in the spreadsheet should be open and clear. I have all sorts of complicated functions and formulas in my spreadsheets, but they are explicitly within visible cells, not within macros.

  4. No hidden sheets, no hidden columns, no hidden formulas. Clearly I am not trying to protect something sold as a commercial application, I am talking about those spreadsheets that we all develop and distribute on a daily basis. By allowing "anyone" to pick up and enhance and improve your work, everyone benefits. Like open source principles on a closed source product.

  5. Everything above suggests that it is the data that is critical, not the fluff around it. So get the numbers right. That's the most important rule of all.


Faisal said...

Interesting. I use a lot of spreadsheets too, and I am migrating a lot of them over to google spreadsheets, although I am a little worried about getting locked out of my account and losing everything one day.

I like to have all my inputs at the top, neatly labeled, along with some key "bottom-line" figures at the top as well, so you can see what changes affect what.

I try to keep things on one sheet, too. If there's a lot of data, I will put the results on one sheet, and the intermediate crunch stuff on the next.

Rana, did you know you can do online forms using google spreadsheets? People can input data on the form that you link them to, and the spreadsheet will update and display the latest and greatest--and you can share the results online in read-only mode. No more coding to create forms...

I hope they do relational databases like that too, one day. Essentially, you would end up with an online graphical database interface like MS Access without needing to implement office extensions on the server side. No need to learn MySql or anything...

R N B said...

Thanks, I have never used Google spreadsheets, or any of these "collaborative" web-based versions … but I certainly see the value of doing so. I do use lots of computers, I have a lot of information scattered around the place, so your idea seems sensible. Just have the same fears about loss of internet access, even if temporary.