Story Spreadsheets

Business school spreadsheets annoy me. I’m not anti-spreadsheet generally, indeed a good spreadsheet is a thing of beauty. What irritates me is the belief students have that a good spreadsheet is a complicated spreadsheet. Students sometimes think that the more they can jam onto a single worksheet the better. This fundamentally mistakes the purpose of spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets should be created to convey a message. Generally the simpler the spreadsheet the more effectively the message will be conveyed.

To channel my irritation with business school spreadsheets I wrote a technical note with my brother, a journalist. We sought to bring a journalists perspective to the design of spreadsheets. We called spreadsheets designed to convey a message — “story spreadsheets”. Such spreadsheets “are designed with the user in mind” (Bendle and Bendle 2014, page 1).

We highlighted twelve principles: including such classics as ‘don’t bury the lead’. It should be obvious to every reader what the key point of the spreadsheet is. Why not use headers to tell us what we are looking at?

Another key point is the need to be printable. Spreadsheets that are poorly formatted can only be printed on a ridiculous amount of paper. These are, therefore, unlikely to be read by anyone, never mind a senior manager who can make a decision. I recommend always checking the print preview when designing the spreadsheet. Remember you can always add extra worksheets which can be linked together if you have a complex analysis.

My final principle discussed here uses the children’s book character Waldo, (Wally in the UK). In the book Waldo is hidden in the midst of scenes with lots of activity. The problem is that Waldo is “..intensely irritating; why can’t Waldo make himself more obvious?” (Bendle and Bendle 2014, page 6). Think of Waldo as the message of your spreadsheet. If people need to search for it they won’t bother because adults have better things to do than look for Waldo.

In summary good spreadsheet design is often overlooked. Spreadsheets are a communication tool, they should be story spreadsheets.

Read: Neil Bendle and Simon Bendle (2014) Story Spreadsheets, Ivey Publishing, 9B14A003