Designing in Excel

I’ll admit Microsoft Office is not my favorite place to spend time, but while working on a design project last week I discovered the ease of prototyping and wireframing using Excel. It won’t get me to stop using Visio any time soon but there may be occasions when Excel is a faster tool for certain projects.

I was working on a set of screens for a business-facing reporting application for a B2C site and had to work with a lot of charts. To make the screens more realistic, I was creating charts with dummy data in Excel and then moving them to Visio for the wireframes. After talking to a friend I decided to create the wireframes right in Excel.

Here’s how it works. First, use the Formatting Palette to turn off gridlines and get yourself a blank page. I used a screen grab of a long form to create all the input widgets I needed for the interface and put those off on a tab by themselves for quick access. Airline websites are a good place for this since some have nice calendar widgets.

I then used another tab as my data tab, which made cranking out the charts pretty easy.

Finally, for each page or screen of the reporting tool, I used a different tab. Giving each tab a unique name (which Excel requires) makes it possible to link to it from other tabs. Using background shading, borders, and links, I was able to create a serviceable set of tabs for the main navigation. Individual cells can be given a border and background color to create buttons. And adding the links means the wireframes could be the start of a prototype when I move to the testing phase. Excel even allows you to save as HTML, much like Visio, to create a set of HTML pages with your designs embedded as images.

The main drawback I encountered was the rigid grid layout imposed by the rows and columns. I had to scrap a few things until I got it right, but think I saved time overall from the Visio+Excel approach.

I’m not sure I’ll use this technique again unless I’m designing a chart and data heavy site. In those cases the time saved may make it worthwhile. If nothing else, I got to explore a different design approach when the favored tool had limitations.

While Googling around on the topic before writing this I came across this book at Amazon – I may pick it up to see what more you can do with Excel.