The abuse of Excel in prototyping

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.


About John Clark

My name is John Clark and I previously ran a software house called Reynard Thomson, from which this blog originally grew. In the meantime, we launched a video-based user testing service (Kupima) which didn't really take off, and I have since moved into a new field specialising on software-based research & development consultancy. I'm active on LinkedIn, and would love to connect to anyone who has an interest in software prototyping or R&D:
This entry was posted in Prototyping, Software Review and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The abuse of Excel in prototyping

  1. Ewa says:

    and this is how it looks like afrer 10 min in JustProto – wireframe style ;)

    great point on Exel not beeing THE tool. BUT – if a client comes to you and says “Hey, I have an idea for an app and this is what I have in mind” giving you a post-it note with his *idea* and then guy comes to you with an Exel made “prototype” you’re on a cloud simply because they have something prototypish like that you can move from. Not a post it taken out of the pocket called a wireframe. :)

  2. Ari Feldman says:

    I agree with you 100% but ironically, there was a book written in 2009 called “Effective Prototyping with Excel.”

    The authors make some good points as to why they chose Excel but it is clearly a lot of effort and really requires someone with good Excel skills to pull off well.

  3. Mahesh says:

    Hi Clark, Thanks for your inputs. I agree with you that, excel is not perfect prototyping tool. Please note that, I have suggested excel as just another tool and not as a complete replacement of professional tools. We all know that the intented use of excel is as a spread sheet and it can never match a tool which is built for prototyping. I myself use balsamiq most of the time. But the fact remains that, excel can be used to create visually striking pages (and if you are a business user who uses excel every day, you dont need much time too. Like any tool, all you need is some practice and creative thinking ).

  4. Gil says:

    John, interesting article. I particularly like the proletariat image !
    I’m always surprised when I see people using Excel for other purposes than data.
    On a sidenote, we have recently switched from Balsamiq to AppSketcher which helps us create better wireframes that we export in HTML and upload to a server. Clients like it more. It does not have that sketchy look but it’s not a problem for me. The logic is a bit different since it uses a “container” approach and not a “layers” one : you put elements or containers within a container. It takes a couple hours to get used to but it is pretty nice. Even if it is still in infancy. Check it out :

    @Ari : OMG. “Effective Prototyping with Excel”. I’m surprised no customer has ever taken this magic bbullet out of their drawer to show us how competent they are.

  5. Nick Panagopoulos says:

    I am guilty of using a .xls for wire framing a few years ago.
    They were the worst wireframes I ever built.
    The user would complain about something not feeling right and, probably sub-consciencely because of the time constraint, I would find myself arguing instead of provide a new solution(s). Great wireframing tools enable you to make changes quickly.
    I will never use excel as a wireframing tool again.

  6. fiorella l says:

    hi air feldman
    please :( can u give a excel because this page can not found :( i need u, it’s important. please can u help me!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>