Office moves?

How many of us spend all our working days with Microsoft Office products? It’s sobering to think that I’ve been staring at monitors full of Outlook e-mails, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets for more than 20 years now. Might that all be changing soon? We’ll see.

The new word processor wars: A fresh crop of productivity apps are trying to reinvent our workday
Nearly 30 years after Microsoft Office came on the scene, it’s in the DNA of just about every productivity app. Even if you use Google’s G Suite or Apple’s iWork, you’re still following the Microsoft model.

But that way of thinking about work has gotten a little dusty, and new apps offering a different approach to getting things done are popping up by the day. There’s a new war on over the way we work, and the old “office suite” is being reinvented around rapid-fire discussion threads, quick sharing and light, simple interfaces where all the work happens inside a single window.

The article lists the alternatives as Quip, Notejoy, Slite, Zenkit, Notion and Agenda for documents and Smartsheet, Airtable, Coda and Trello for spreadsheets.

Their informal, cartoony visuals and emphasis on chatty messaging collaboration makes everything feel a little juvenile and jokey.

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I wonder if my demographic is supposed to be represented on that Coda homepage by the grey-haired, casual-suit-no-tie coffee-drinker in the bottom right-hand corner. I’ve certainly never taken an ice-cream, a skateboard or a basketball to work, so I guess it must be, fist-bump-at-the-stacked-area-chart notwithstanding.

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Excel-lent architecture

I love this new take on an old art form.

The spreadsheet architecture of Emma Stevens
Normally the mere mention of a spreadsheet can bring a distant glaze across the eyes of most creatives – the file format perceived as the antithesis of imagination by those desiring to create rather than tabulate. But Australian landscape architect Emma Stevens imagined the mundane Excel spreadsheet as an opportunity rather than an impediment to exploring art, using a tried and true technique of type as a medium to create a vast skyline out of text and cells.

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It’s hard to believe that it’s the same tool, but used in a very different way, as the one this Japanese artist uses.

Meet Tatsuo Horiuchi, the 77-year-old artist who ‘paints’ Japanese landscapes with Excel
For over 15 years, Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi has rendered the subtle details of mountains, cherry blossoms, and dense forests with the most unlikely tool: Microsoft Excel. The 77-year-old illustrator shunned the idea of paying for expensive painting supplies or even a basic drawing program for his computer, saying that he prefers Excel even over Microsoft Paint because it has “more functions and is easier to use.” Using simple vector drawing tools developed primarily for graphs and simple shapes, Horiuchi instead draws panoramic scenes of life in rural Japan.

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Sadly, all the spreadsheets I create are far more conventional.

Excel’s getting interesting. No, really

News that Excel will soon be expanding its range of data types, enabling a much richer and more dynamic experience.

Excel Data Types
AI powered Excel Data Types will transform the way we work with Excel by enabling a cell to contain much more than text, numbers or formulas.

There are currently two Excel data types available to Office 365 users; Stocks and Geography. Let’s start with the Geography Data Type that can take a table of countries and return rich data that can be referenced in Excel formulas and expand into further columns.

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Mynda takes us through many other examples of how these new data types can be used and referenced in our spreadsheets. And it seems like this is just the beginning.

The Excel team have big plans for Data Types with more coming, including the ability to create your own data types unique to your organisation. Imagine data types for Employees, Products, Stores, Regions… the list is endless.

Excel tips and tricks

Often with these kinds of training videos it’s the ‘ooh I’d forgotten you could do that‘ moments that are the most useful. The overall topic of the tutorial itself might not be what you’re after (do you really need to know how to make a Christmas Tree in Excel?), but just simple reminders about things like F9 or index match are just the ticket.

Here are some of my recent favourites:

From Exceljet‘s channel, How to fill in missing data with a simple formula

From Leila Gharani‘s channel, Excel index match advanced: lookup multiple criteria in rows or columns

From the My Online Training Hub channel, Labeling events in Excel charts

From the Excel Is Fun channel, Excel magic trick 1474: Excel twinkling Christmas Tree with star & formulas as presents!

A time before Excel?

An article from 1984 about these crazy new electronic ledger sheets, or “spreadsheets”.

A spreadsheet way of knowledge
There is no doubt that the electronic spreadsheet saves time and provides insight; there is no doubt that even greater benefits will one day be derived from these grids. Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behaviour, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

I wonder what the author would have made of the Quantified Self movement, that attempts to incorporate data from a person’s daily life into various formulas and models. Spreadsheets are everywhere now, not just in the office of accountants from Cincinnati.

And they look really spidery too

Another great Excel article from Mynda Treacy​, this time about her​​ views on radar charts. It’s safe to say she’s not a fan. Some great points here about data visualisation and how to get messages across. I’ve never used a radar chart, but that’s more because I’ve never really understood them.

Excel alternatives to radar charts
Radar charts display data in a circular fashion, which is the opposite of the straight line comparisons we’re able to subconsciously perform. This means we have to work hard to make any comparisons and as a result we’re likely to make mistakes in our assumptions.​

She mentions this article ​by Stephen Few, who weighs in further but does recognise when these radar charts might have their uses.

Keep radar graphs below the radar – far below (pdf)
This one advantage motivates me to ease up just a bit on my repugnance toward radar graphs.

If only

PowerPoint should be banned. This PowerPoint presentation explains why.
It is estimated that more than 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day. But as PowerPoint conquered the world, critics have piled on. And justifiably so. Its slides are oversimplified, and bullet points omit the complexities of nearly any issue.​

A great PowerPoint about PowerPoint, with examples that really hit the mark. “Make these slides the last ones you ever read”? If only. It’s far too ingrained and we’re far too lazy. And don’t think Prezi’s any better, unless you’re a fan of motion sickness.

But wait, here’s a different view.

Tools are not to blame, blame laziness
PowerPoint and Excel aren’t the enemy, though a lot of people to seem to think they are. Frequently, I hear others say “don’t use PowerPoint” or snicker when someone mentions conducting analysis with Excel. This is wrong. There is nothing wrong with Excel or PowerPoint; I am a fan and user of both programs. The problem is the creativity and capability of those using those programs and it’s time to realize that.

And here’s a great piece on PowerPoint from Russell Davies.

29 Bullets
9. Lingua franca PowerPoint is how organisations communicate. Email someone a PowerPoint file and there’s a high chance that they’ll be able to open it. Most organisational knowledge is probably stored in PowerPoint files. (Though it feels like I should be writing that as ‘knowledge’ and ‘stored’) Microsoft understand this power, of course, and they work very hard to make PowerPoint backwardly compatible. You can open a PowerPoint 3.0 file from 1992 in today’s version on an iPad Pro and all the animations will run as intended.

Clever lists in Excel

Another Excel solution in search of a problem. I must be able to try this out on something…

Create dependent drop down lists in Excel
“Limit the choices in an Excel drop down list, by using named ranges and the INDIRECT function, to create dependent data validation lists. For example, select Fruit in column A, and only Fruit items appear in the drop down list in column B.”​