The success of Excel

Excel is everywhere. Almost every company uses it. But what makes this software so popular and when should you consider other solutions? In this article, we'll share our key Excel thoughts and show you how to spot and evaluate areas for improvement.

Many Excel Symbols

A first thought: Where do we use Excel?

Where can the most potential for improvement through digitalization and new technologies be discovered in my company or department? There is a simple Mental Model for this. Take a look at your own processes and ask yourself the following question: In which processes do we use Excel particularly much?

The power of Excel

Excel is often a source of frustration for users and management. Nevertheless, hardly any company today functions without Excel. Excel is rightly the most successful business software in the world. But what makes Excel so influential?

Users spend a lot of time with the software. They gather necessary information from different sources and merge them in Excel. Then they complete their tasks, whether for budget planning, campaign tracking or CRM. Lots of data is researched, collected, copied and adjusted. In the process, many users would rather spend more work time with personal exchanges than in the spreadsheet universe. But with all the hassle, we quickly forget how much work Excel takes away from us.

So back to our question: What makes Excel so successful? The following four aspects are central:

  • Excel is flexible. A use case specialized software cannot directly know all tasks and needs of the users at the beginning. Excel manages the balancing act between usability and flexibility.
  • Excel is consistent. This refers to software architecture. Excel can do what many other products cannot: improve with every feature that is added.
  • Excel is familiar and intuitive. There are many passionate Excel users all over the world. But even most laymen know the spreadsheet interface and use it. Those who are challenged and rewarded at the same time find pleasure in using a product.
  • Excel is (backwards) compatible. People have certain habits when they get into new software. Knowing these habits helps product designers tackle even complex ideas more quickly and intuitively.

Excel or custom software?

Excel is used for a very wide range of use cases. Hence the startup saying, "Every Excel is a SaaS (Software as a Service) opportunity." Based on this, thousands of companies with dedicated solutions have emerged, e.g. Hubspot  and Salesforce in the CRM environment or Buffer and Hootsuite in campaign tracking. From a user perspective, the question then arises: Should I keep Excel, switch to a SaaS solution, or do I need custom-developed software?

Frequently used Excel spreadsheets often have a high potential for improvement. However, many processes have also grown with Excel. Some even over years and decades. Such processes cannot be mapped within a standard software without changing the process significantly.

"Why should proven processes adapt to the software? The software should rather adapt to the process!"

As mentioned before, the high degree of Excel usage in a process suggests that this is where the most potential for an alternative solution lies. After all, for "on-and-off" use cases, Excel is unbeatable because the setup is fast and flexibility is high. Another aspect to consider is: How company-specific is the process? For processes like CRM or project management that every company has, there are many dedicated SaaS solutions. Only for topics that are very important, specific and complex, an individual software solution makes sense.

Macros, data sources and co. - improvement potentials of Excel

A desk with a desktop and Excel Sheets

Why should you question your Excel spreadsheets at all? The biggest advantage of Excel is the fusion of database and user interface. At the same time, this is also the aspect that shows a lot of potential for improvement. Here are the most common potentials:

1. Complexity 

Description: Sometimes there are dozens of Excel spreadsheets per process. These then have further dozens of spreadsheets with information and help tables. This leads to some disadvantages:

  • Many connections are no longer comprehensible after a while, for example with long concatenations of S-references (or index/matches).
  • The familiarization with the topic always takes longer than expected.
  • In order to still keep track, each user creates his own pivot charts, which leads to additional work.

Solution: Clarity can be promoted by separating logic and user interface in an individual solution. Most calculations and links run in the backend. Users interact with the application through different split views.

2. Productive rights management

Description: Excel does not have a very granular rights management. As a result, one suffers productivity losses. This is because it is often necessary to first ask another person with more access rights for help. If you give employees more access rights than necessary, you accept an increased security risk.

Solution: Custom development allows rights to be granted on a very granular basis, for example at workflow, view and cell level. Dashboards and dataviews tailored to the process allow the optimal balance of productivity and security.

3. Maintainability and development

Description: Many Excel spreadsheets are ticking time bombs in terms of reliability and functional development. At latest when the first macros are to be further developed, problems appear on a wide variety of charts. The macros are like a black box: not comprehensible to outsiders and their effects often unpredictable. And what happens when the self-proclaimed macro god leaves the company?

Solution: Every important software application should be capable of developing. What is striking about the problems described above is that Excel is essentially a calculation program, not a database with a development framework. Classic development concepts are missing. Version control (Git), documentation in repositories and test coverage help to mitigate the described problems. This makes further development more predictable and the know-how is not in a single head.

What does an Excel replacement look like?

Should there be a need for an individual solution - What could an Excel replacement look like?

First, ensure a deep understanding of users, processes and data flows. User interviews and clean documentation consolidate this understanding. Relevant is also all information regarding: Web interface, logic, database and user management. The new solution must show a significant improvement in these aspects. There is a particular challenge here: A "black on white" change is not recommended. Instead, the iterative change from Excel to custom software, in the sense of an agile way of working is recommended. The process must not suffer as a result.

Accordingly, the first version should already offer reliability, added value and acceptance:

  • Reliability: The process should continue to function well, even before completion of all functions. How does this work? Ironically: with Excel. At certain points, you provide Excel imports and exports that people can continue to work with. But don't worry, this doesn't make for more chaos. It's just a matter of choosing the right places, such as when raw data is needed for more advanced modeling or when clients request a specific section. It is also important to plan that "copy + paste" with Excel remains possible.
  • Added value: The first version should already address some potential improvements from the last section in order to directly provide added value.
  • Acceptance: To achieve this, the features with the best cost-benefit ratio are identified and introduced early on. These bring added value to as many user groups as possible. The programming effort is small, the wow effect large. At the same time, you should work with user stories to convince all user groups equally of the new tool.