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 – http://tinyurl.com/dfvtb2. I may pick it up to see what more you can do with Excel.

Paper is Your Friend

Today I learned (relearned unfortunately) the value of digging into a design effort with nothing more than an engaged end user and a blank piece of paper. I’ve been working on a product management reporting dashboard the last few weeks and found myself yesterday morning sitting with a detailed set of requirements and a looming deadline. Not always what you want to see at 8 AM but I thought I could rise to the occasion with a bit hard work and a phone on mute.

I plowed straight into Visio designing what I thought were going to be a useful set of screens detailing the various performance and usage metrics of a new site I’m working on. After a good 15 hours invested in the effort over two days, I looked at my work and had the sinking feeling I had wasted two days designing an absolutely useless set of convoluted screens on par with a federal tax form. So I spent a few more hours rearranging the proverbial Titanic deck chairs before seeing that I was working too hard but not too smart. Not my best days.

So my next move was to scrap the whole effort and start from scratch. I grabbed a few end users and asked them a series of questions about how they wanted to consume the information and how they would be using it. The key point I took from our talk was not so much details of the exact data points as much as their need to consume the information quickly. They was looking for an easy-to-digest set of information that they could process in a few minutes and determine if there was an emerging problem that needed immediate attention. We quickly sketched out some very crude designs and within 30 minutes had a whole new direction. The project is now back on track and some of the users have given preliminary approval to much of what they’ve seen.

This is hardly a new insight but one we sometimes lose sight of on projects with tight deadlines because we are too focused on making progress on the actual deliverables. There are some good resources at A List Apart, UseIt.com, and at the website for Carolyn Snyder’s book Paper Prototyping.

IT 223: Data Analysis

Grades for winter quarter came back today and I landed an A in Statistics. There is no way to adequately communicate the happy dance I am doing right now. I was the guy who always struggled in math in school, so this is a real personal victory for me. Add to that the fact that I am already using what I learned on my job and this course turned out to be a great experience worth all of the many weekend hours I devoted to it. And the best part is this is my last prerequisite course, meaning I move on to the good stuff now. Next up, Usability Engineering, where we will work in groups throughout the quarter to design and develop a low fidelity prototype of a mobile application. I can’t wait to get started.

Pageonce for iPhone

Some people may want a multi-purpose tool that makes everything they do online easy and fast, with one place to store usernames and passwords and one user experience. You know, a Swiss Army for all those accounts so they can get stuff done and get back to Facebooking or finding a job. Pageonce offers that promise – sort of – but comes up short.

I’ve been playing with the iPhone version lately to see if this mobile account aggregator satisfies the need. Pageonce allows you to connect to various account types such as financial services, travel, email and social sites like LinkedIn. Ironically, it doesn’t connect to Facebook, which has to be changed in a future version if it’s going to get any traction. Pageonce, which also has BlackBerry and web-based versions, can also connect to a few ecommerce sites like Amazon, Costco and eBay.

While Pageonce provides a single app to access all these accounts it has a major limitation – it’s read only. You can see the stream of credit card transactions and Twitter updates, but you can’t jump in. There’s not much use in that. To interact with your accounts, you have to punch out to each individual site from Pageonce. Huh? So what Pageonce locks down for security reasons – real functionality – ends up diluting the app completely. It is an interesting (and free) experiment, but not much more. It still has an impossibly long way to go before it replaces all the individual apps you can download for your iPhone and BlackBerry. Their positioning that you only have to setup usernames and passwords in one app also doesn’t mean much when you can install a full-featured app thoughtfully designed for each site and still only have to setup the password once. And I don’t know too many smartphone users who are reluctant to install more apps.

WordPress for iPhone

I’m testing the WordPress iPhone app and am finding it pretty darn intuitive. There is definitely a well-defined UI convention in apps that makes them far superior to web-based iPhone sites. Once again Apple has scored big with their app model. I’m curious to see if more website operators move to creating apps instead of iPhone versions of their sites. Of course Apple could help speed that up by streamlining the process for getting them in the App Store.

Welcome

Welcome to UXploration.

This is where I write about things that interest me in my professional life as a user experience architect and as a graduate HCI student.

I’m currently enrolled in the graduate HCI program at DePaul University in Chicago and will try to post details of school projects and research as well.

Having to produce something fresh on a regular basis forces me to look at my work and studies more critically and to find things that may be of interest to others. I’m looking forward to learning a lot as I go. I hope others do too.