Excel Users Are “Doomed.” Long Live Excel User Interface

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A little while ago, in her post Beware Supply Chain Excel Users—YOU are DOOMED!!!!, my colleague Khudsiya Quadri warned Microsoft Excel users that Excel is not a good option when enterprise applications are expected to be used. Reading her post and the comments that followed is a good exercise in learning different perspectives from different people. However, in my post, I’ll refrain from agreeing or disagreeing, but rather I’ll open another discussion that is also related to Excel—the user interface (UI).

My thoughts pertaining to Excel’s UI is triggered by a briefing that I just had with Siemens PLM regarding its Teamcenter offerings for the apparel, footwear, and accessories industries. During the presentation, a new feature caught my eye—the integration between Teamcenter 8 and Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint. In short, my understanding is that this feature allows PLM data and processes to be accessed within the Teamcenter environment and within the Microsoft Office environment and supports the control of content/data in a document in finer granularity than before. If you want to know more, Siemens PLM provides a three-minute video on its Web site explaining the Teamcenter-Office integration. This feature is innovative because word processing and spreadsheet documents in a PLM environment are usually treated as unstructured data objects managed through metadata (the tags or features of a document) rather than the content/data inside the document. I have to admit that this feature will prompt not only users’ productivity but also potential users’ buy-in when they are evaluating solutions.

The benefit of working with Microsoft Office more closely can also be seen by vendors in other enterprise software categories. As jbkuppe from Boardwalktech stated on Quadri’s post: Excel by itself is limited, but when coupled with a database which enables cell-level collaboration inside and outside the firewall, cell-level access control, auditability, security, and integration with [multiple] systems, supply chain users are very happy.

Then, my question is, if a user has a real database-based enterprise system in place, why is Excel still being used? There might be multiple answers but I’d like to focus on one thing—the user habit. Excel has been around for 25 years and is the only prominent spreadsheet application on the market. Excel may not be a perfect tool, but after all these years, office workers’ experience has been tightly bound to Excel when they are thinking of entering, retrieving, and analyzing data. The familiarization and skills accumulated by the massive amount of Excel users are great assets to be used by enterprise software developers.

I was a fan of Super Mario Bros. when it was in a low resolution 2D format on Nintendo game consoles. When I tried the new 3D version on Nintendo Wii, I stopped playing it right away. Since my player experience had been locked with the old version, the look and feel of the new game wasn’t right—even though it was more beautiful and supposedly more entertaining to play. As for enterprise software (of course it is more serious than video games), no matter how complicated and advanced it is in the back-end, facing the end users, it’s better to be simple, intuitive, and familiar to users’ experience. As today’s enterprise software becomes more converged in terms of functionality (what the system can do), the UI (how the system allows user to do it) becomes a more important factor that distinguishes the good ones from the rest.
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