I received a nice comment from a fellow called Mahesh who has posted an interesting article on his blog about prototyping using Microsoft Excel. Now, I don’t actually know Mahesh but anyone who writes about prototyping is a friend in my book. Even if we don’t agree on a few points
My initial thoughts on using Excel in the past basically went something like this: “Using Excel for prototyping is hard work and is a little bit like cutting food with a spoon.” Hence the image above…
Now, we’ve seen signs of Microsoft abuse in the past, such as the ritual abuse of PowerPoint, and we’ve covered off a few really affordable and powerful prototyping tools such as JustProto and Balsamiq, so any argument that dedicated software is too expensive is just bunkum. In fact, the benefits of prototyping are so numerous that you’ll claw back the cost of any software quickly and (in a fairly short time) it’ll start to pay for itself.
Mahesh writes: “Excel is an excellent tool for prototyping, creating the logos, creating buttons and many other basic stuff. In fact you could also use excel as a small db, and write some macros to create working prototype of your ideas.”
Woah! There be dragons. Or at least the road to madness. I once worked in a large (now somewhat crest-fallen) bank which managed to run a basic CMS using Excel for their intranet. The line between genius and madness is a fine one, and that team took a few steps over it, decided what they saw was good, and stayed there. Crazy. Let me say that again: Crazy.
I’m a strong believer in using the proper tools for the job. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to fix your boiler with a claw-hammer. One of the defining characteristics of professionalism is to use the correct tools for the job, and Excel ain’t that tool. It’s not even close. Although damned nifty for doing your accounts.
The Implicit Struggle Of The Corporate Proletariat
(I wonder if that’s the first time someone’s approached Excel criticism in a software prototyping blog using a Marxist construct? Hmmmm…
The reason, I believe, that Excel is abused as a prototyping tool is generally the oppressive regime of the corporate gatekeepers; the bureaucratic bouncers of the IT software politic. Yes, folks, let’s face it – even though the cost of a bit of software might be trivial, getting it approved and installed on your desktop is often a political struggle to say the least. Which is why Excel, ubiquitous resident of the corporate software build, pops a tentative hand up and whispers, “you know, I might be able to help“. Before you know it, entire information infrastructures are balanced precariously on the threads of, um, a spreadsheet.
Workers Rise Up. Or Toe The Line…
So, you’re working for a faceless corporate entity and you’ve given in to the oppressive regime. What choice have you? Well, other than the total insanity of PowerPoint, or the delusion of Paint, there’s normally not a whole lot going on on the corporate desktop. Excel’s about as good as you’ll get, unless you’re brave enough to try to put a purchase order through The System.
But… is it any good?
Mahesh has probably put a lot of work into his Excel prototype. Indeed, it looks pretty neat:
…but I’m willing to wager that it took a long time and involved a lot of frustration to create. Just because it’s a Tuesday, and I’ve not messed around with Balsamiq for, oh, at least three days, I thought I’d do a very quick mockup of the same page and time myself:
My version, created using Balsamiq Mockups:
The important thing to note here is that whilst the two are visually a bit different, they are (in wire-framing terms) equivalent. And I would assume that neither are intended to aesthetically resemble a finished product. At least I hope so! That is, of course, where either approach falls down somewhat – but at this stage of the game to get caught up on the aesthetics would be a mistake.
And the time? Well, it took me approximately ten minutes from deciding to do this, opening Balsamiq, creating the Balsamiq version, exporting it to an image file and uploading it here. I bet it took substantially longer to do it in Excel, and supposing the customer wanted to change the layout so that we had a nice picture of the individual? Very, very quick to do in Balsamiq:
In Excel, this would have involved a world of pain; inserting rows, copying content, adjusting borders. I’d guess it’d take at least an hour if not longer. My mods above took three minutes, including finding the kitten
And the point?
Well, if I succeed in one thing today I’d like to be able to persuade some of you to take off the foil hat and really think carefully about whether Excel really is saving you any time or money at all. In the case of software prototyping, you’ll spend far longer to produce a rather awkward, fragile prototype which will take ages to amend. At this stage of any software design/development, what we want is responsiveness – and Excel falls dramatically short.