Thursday, May 10, 2012

My most heavily-used design tool: the spreadsheet

One of the most common discussions I see for any type of work is of toolsets. Every couple weeks on one of the LinkedIn UX groups there is a discussion of drawing tools, or prototyping tools. I very much have my own favorites, and good reasons why. I even contribute to the discussions.

But my most heavily used tool, for the most critical parts of my work in defining the UX, is without a doubt the... spreadsheet. And this is not one of those where I have another definition of the word. I mean  Excel, and it's competition.

For the love of God, why?!?!

I want to be very clear. I am not talking about just picking the most used app in my workday, and calling that my most used design tool. That  could have instead been email or "the file system," or "post-it notes." No, this is legitimately a digital tool I have open at least as much as InDesign, Graffle or Photoshop when I am actually billing for design work.

When I first designed interactive systems, I drew everything, page by page. In Photoshop, or even on paper. And I came up with ideas off the top of my head, often before the client finished explaining. But as the scale increased, this became a challenge. When I once spent four months in a room, 12 hours a day, gathering requirements and putting them straight onto paper designs (for a giant portal project) I realized that was stupid in several ways, and moved eventually to not just documenting very differently (vector, wireframes, modular) but to gathering requirements.

If you find this fascinating, the whole process is detailed in this book on design process.

So I developed a method of listening better, using surveys and workshops and gathering and analyzing the results. I developed a series of tools that are just forms, words, and bullet lists. My Client Questionnaire is one of these. And over time I ended up settling on the spreadsheet, instead of Word or any other method to record it all.

I'd also have to say that I derived the whole method of using spreadsheets like this, in part, from data gathering tools some people at Sprint used during usability research. Which isn't bad either, as that's part of our design process also.

So... which spreadsheet do you use?

But back now to the fun of comparing tools. I use the spreadsheet, vs. anything else, as the ordered data is very useful. Rarely is calculation important, but sometimes I actually do find it helpful to do math. Some of my workshop methods involve giving numerical rankings. And of course, certain types of heuristic evaluations as well as user research come up with grades that can be used to numerically (if not statistically) analyze things.

But the software:

  • I prefer Google Spreadsheet over all others. I even just prefer the interaction, as it has only the tools I need, and few others. It's easy to use, and even to type in. Of course, sharing is the key feature, and it's miles better than any other sharing system. Don't even talk to me about file sharing systems. Another reason I settled on this is that Google's Word clone doesn't work well to avoid edit conflicts. I have never lost data in Google Spreadsheet.
    If you still wonder what all this is about, here's an example of a heuristic evaluation in Google Spreadsheet format. Everything, from the numbering to the "END" in the last line is on purpose, and something I do for every document.
  • If I have to, which is common with giant corporate clients who forbid cloud services, Excel works fine also. It's not great, and version control can be a pain for sharing, but it can work. 
  • OpenOffice is... okay. Used it formally for a few years, and it's nothing special. But I guess a spreadsheet is a spreadsheet.
  • Basecamp. Yeah, there's no spreadsheet. But I have had people insist we use it, not for uploading (Backpack, same thing) but to put the data in there directly. A bullet list is not a spreadsheet, and points out the flaws in the system. It's hard to comment on a bullet list, for example, so you end up with email-like comment threads, and no one can find the final version of the data. 
  • WikiMedia. Again, no spreadsheet. The table tools do not count. As much as I love me a wiki to share concepts, none that I am aware of have a table tool as easy to use as a spreadsheet. Too bad really.

For the non collaborative tools, you end up making up for this with lots of screen sharing. So, you have meetings to read spreadsheets to people. Often this is a symptom of the corporate culture instead of a tool limitation per se (no one will contribute to the document anyway without a meeting) but it's still sad.

Wouldn't something else be better?

Of course,  nothing is ideal and this could be improved on as well. My ideal tool would be a database of some sort. For years I, and teams I worked with, used various how-grown [UI to MySQL] datastores. Or just FileMaker. But even the easiest database is relatively harrowing to set up. Instead, spreadsheets are close enough for now.

Incidentally, this is one of my killer app ideas, if anyone ever wanted to give me a couple million dollars to pursue good ideas. A really, really, simple (cloud?) database could change everything about the way a lot of us work. Maybe someone will make this, sometime. Then, I'll use that instead.

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