Quickbase blog: Time to end spreadsheet abuse

What software do you use for formatting a resume, running a presentation, a rudimentary word processor, drawing pictures of their network infrastructure connections, a simple database or drawing a map? By now you have probably guessed: a spreadsheet. (The presentation used a separate worksheet for each slide.)

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented the lowly electronic spreadsheet with VisiCalc for the Apple II in 1979. It is amazing that it has come to have such a long and fruitful life – and dare we say so abused too. I remember my first time with VisiCalc back then. I thought I had died and gone to digital heaven: it was my go-to mathematical modeling tool, calculator, and general analysis workbench. Looks like many of you have had similar circumstances.

Part of the allure of the spreadsheet is that it can be so useful, even in situations where we have a lot more appropriate software and collaboration tools (such as Quickbase). A good example comes from the early days of Trek bicycles. Their product team would hold status meetings two to three times per week, during which the team assembled in a conference room and via phone would update project spreadsheets one line item at a time. That has got to be one of the most painful ways to collaborate. I guess this was before the Internet was in wide use.

I always knew that spreadsheets were the go-to database program for those who were confounded by SQL or Access or even Filemaker to put in rows of information and organize them. I guess it is a testimonial to the power of the spreadsheet that so many databases were built using them over the years. Here is one that might tickle your, ahem, fancy. A talent agency that books exotic dancers uses a spreadsheet to schedule the dancers and track customer complaints. Customers who are blacklisted (the mind boggles at what the reasons could be to get you on this list) and who require “special skills” of each dancer are also catalogued in separate columns of the spreadsheet. Nice to know.

But databases aren’t their only use or abuse. Just as I was fascinated by those early spreadsheets, many of you have come to use them in more interesting ways. A few years ago I asked my readers on ReadWrite.com to tell me their favorite spreadsheet abuse stories. One reader wrote that he used a spreadsheet’s “formulas to write web page HTML, where I had a lot of data that needed to go in a repeating template.” Again, that seems excessive to me. Another one wrote in: “One retail store HQ I worked for used it to print price tags for furniture since you could create a consistent layout. The buyers also used it as a word processor since they didn’t know how to use Word.”

That seemed to be a common thread. I remember one colleague back in the early days using it as his only word processor, and putting in an entire line of text in each cell. It made for formatting challenges when it came time to edit this “document,” to be sure.

But spreadsheet abuse doesn’t have to happen, particularly if you use an online tool such as Quickbase or one of its competitors. This adds the collaboration component and extends its usefulness beyond mere rows and columns into something more powerful and sharable. Indeed, many people have built some great pieces of software with online spreadsheets, such as:

  • Customized CRM/sales management apps
  • Operations, inventory or logistics tracking tools
  • Customer service and support
  • Marketing and project managers 

For example, one collegiate football team uses their spreadsheet as an application for recruiting high school football players. Scouts use tables to track data for prospects such as height, weight, stats and SAT scores. The information is shared among the front office team management and continually updated as they roam around the country looking for talent. That isn’t spreadsheet abuse, but just darned clever. So think the next time you are about to build the world’s greatest spreadsheet of your own, and maybe start your app with an online version first.

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