You’ve probably got some experience with spreadsheets—but let’s zoom out and take a look at what they do best, and where they can fall short.
A spreadsheet is a tool that organizes information in a grid of columns and rows. With a spreadsheet, it’s up to you to determine the best way to add, organize, and analyze your data. Basically, it is a blank canvas for your information. You can use the cells however you like—put your company goals at the top of every tab, break your team’s list of clients into different columns, run a quick calculation at the bottom of each list.
This type of unstructured data is ideal in some instances. However, the same aspects that make working with spreadsheet so easy and intuitive (they’re easy to use, flexible and adaptable), are the very same aspects that can actually become a big burden on your productivity and impact.
Your spreadsheet shows the same information to every viewer.
No matter if you want to share the client name with Suzie from Accounting, or the due date with Mike from production: Everyone will receive the same sheet and it will be up to them to extract the info they need.
Also, seeing data in a particular order, for example, typically requires making changes to the sheet itself.
Your spreadsheet is not ideal for collaboration
Has it ever happened to you that you invite others to collaborate with you on our spreadsheet and even though the layout is so obvious, they just don’t get it and keep entering data incorrectly?
That’s because with a spreadsheet, the person who creates the spreadsheet defines the format.
And it’s hard to get others to engage with your sheet if they don’t like the format, and if they can’t figure out how it’s relevant to them.
The result is that you’ll need to spend a lot of time instructing others how to use your spreadsheet (or scold them if they do it wrong), because it’s error-prone, not least because:
Your spreadsheet doesn’t care how data is entered.
It will also be up to your users not to revise any data incorrectly or (oh, the horrors!) inadvertently delete data or break your existing formulas.
Your spreadsheet does not make it easy to hand off or take over someone else’s work
If the person designing the spreadsheet is the only one who understands how all of its parts work, that person is doomed to be taking care of this spreadsheet until the end of time.
“Here, I’d like you to take care of my 17-sheet file from now on. Don’t worry, it’s super easy. It’s all right there in the formula”.
“Sure thing, I got it.” Said no one, ever.
See an comparison of a simple formula between Coda and Sheets to gauge their intuitive readability,
Your spreadsheet takes lot of time to keep up to date.
Because you don’t want to bombard your viewer with 1,000 rows in your spreadsheet, you usually break up the data into separate tabs within a worksheet. Information across tabs or even worksheets can’t easily talk to one another, creating data silos. At some point, you’ll realize that some information displayed on tab 1 does not match the same information in tab 2. And down you go the rabbit hole of trying to figure out which data is indeed correct and what caused this error (good luck with that, by the way ;-)
Your spreadsheet makes it hard to draw insights
You suspect that somewhere in your spreadsheet lay untapped insights — but drawing insights across tabs and sheets is next to impossible when your data is stored in separate silos.
Sure, your spreadsheet can certainly help you to answer the question: “How many units of Product A did we sell last quarter?”. But what about: “How many units of Product A did we sell last quarter, to customers who had already bought Product B the year before and who carry our loyalty card?” Complex inquiries like this are tough for a spreadsheet, but a breeze for a database.
Making data-driven decisions starts with the ability to easily access that data. If you can’t act on your information in a timely manner, you’re leaving missed opportunities on the table.
Spreadsheets are a great tool when you want to capture data in an unstructured way. However, when it comes to orchestrating a multistep process, involving different stakeholders with unique priorities while tracking a wide range of information, a little structure can go a long way.