Microsoft Excel spreadsheets hold more than a million rows of data and automate number crunching, but they can do so much more. Excel's simple interface lends itself to uses well beyond those that its designers ever imagined.
People have used Excel for all sorts of purposes, from teaching pilots their way around a Boeing 747 to creating clip art.
Although other programs perform such specialized tasks more quickly, accurately, and effectively, faithful Excel users often spurn those options, preferring to use the spreadsheet program they know rather than unfamiliar software.
If you're in business, Excel is likely one of your day-to-day productivity tools. Maybe after reading about creative ways other people have used Microsoft's spreadsheet application, you'll look at its potential for your work in a new light.
At one end of the range of possible uses for Excel is its role as a word processor. This use isn't terribly uncommon; you may even know someone who does this. Although a dedicated word processor offers far superior tools, you can still write a letter or short document in Excel, either by merging and enlarging cells to use for the text or by placing the content in a text box.
Writing letters, however, is comparatively simple compared with what Debbie Gewand can create in Excel. She uses the program to create clip-art images, and she wrote a book showing how she does it. Gewand takes photos that she has scanned into Excel as references, and then draws them as clip art by assembling lots of filled shapes made with Excel's drawing tools. She has also used Excel to create two-page brochures and business cards. Her Website showcases a grab bag of unusual cases.
Behind the Cockpit
At Red Triangle, Todd Michael Edwards uses Excel to provide training for pilots around the world on planes ranging from regional jets to Boeing 747s. His company's cockpit mockups, created as Excel worksheets, show diagrams of the switches and indicators. The worksheets utilize comment boxes, which within cells provide pop-up details of what the lights and indicators do and what their different states mean.
It's a simple learning aid that can run on just about any computer and requires only an Excel viewer application to use, not the Microsoft program itself.
Track Leads, Build Software, and Analyze Data
Some users have found novel applications for Excel that harness its power for business. Photographer Leeann Marie created a marketing worksheet in Excel to track her photography leads and their conversion into actual shoots. This lead-tracking sheet features a data-collection worksheet and a series of PivotTables that analyze the data and provide summarized information about referral sources, failed leads, booking rates, and other details. You can find this worksheet as a free download from her Website.
Other users, such as Purna Duggirala, harness Excel's power to prototype user interfaces. He takes advantage of the application's structure to lay out a design, and he also puts Excel's drawing and form tools to good use in the mockups
Excel has always been a good tool for analyzing information created elsewhere. You can use it to analyze data from a range of sources by first importing or linking the data from a data store and then displaying it in a format that's easy to sort and summarize. If the links between Excel and the data are live, then changes or edits to the original data should update automatically in Excel. The Group, Filter, Consolidate, and PivotTable tools in Excel give plenty of options for summarizing the data to answer questions about your business.
With the advent of Office Web Apps, even small businesses that don't operate a Sharepoint server can make use of the new multiuser authoring feature for Excel. For example, you can upload a budget or other worksheet prepared in Excel to a Windows Live SkyDrive account and make it available for all interested parties to view and edit online, regardless of where they are. They can use the Excel Web App to make changes, and they don't even need to have Excel installed to use it. This is a feature that Google Spreadsheets has offered for some time, and it's sure to be a welcome addition for business users of Excel.
Just for Fun
Some novel uses for Excel are more for entertainment than work. One-time Excel expert Harald Staff created a Web radio player that plays inside an Excel worksheet. You can see it at work by downloading the file from Contextures.com. Simply click one of the listed stations to play it.
Other users have found a practical solution for being caught on a holiday without dice by writing a simple random number formula in an Excel cell to simulate dice rolls.
Not Everything Goes Excel's Way
When it comes to interesting uses for spreadsheets, Google Spreadsheets has some tricks up its sleeve that even Excel doesn't offer. One of these is the capability to create maps with data that's stored in a worksheet through a Google Gadget. (Coincidentally, a similar feature was available in Excel 2000 and earlier versions; however, it was subsequently removed and became the stand-alone application Microsoft MapPoint.)
In Google Spreadsheets you start by adding data listed by region, using ISO country codes or U.S. state codes. The codes go in the leftmost column; in subsequent columns, you add the data to show on the map, one column for each map. You then insert the Heatmap gadget, select the data, and choose the map to use -- the data will be plotted as colors on the map.
You can also make use of a map gadget to show, for instance, where your business offices or distributors of your products are located, by marking them on a Google Map. To do so, place the address to map in one column and any tooltip text to display when the user hovers their mouse over that location in the adjacent column. You then insert the map gadget and select the cells containing the data. At any time, if the data in the worksheet is updated, the map will redraw automatically. Combine this flexibility with the capability to publish a Google Spreadsheet to the Web, and you have a great tool for providing location-based business information in a graphical way.
Yet another feature of Google Spreadsheets that you can harness for business use -- and has no direct parallel in Excel -- is the Form feature, which allows you to create a form inside a spreadsheet to collect data from a user. You might use it for an invitation for which you're collecting replies, for example, or a customer survey form.
Once you have created the form, which can contain multiple-choice questions, checkboxes, and the like, you publish it to the Web. As users complete the form, the data is automatically added to the spreadsheet, allowing you to aggregate data from surveys or to gather replies to an invitation all in one place and without your input. (Although you can create a form in Excel, it offers you no simple way to publish it online and automatically collect the data.)
A Word of Caution
Not all the uses to which people put Excel -- or Google Spreadsheets, for that matter -- are ideal for the application. Most users who explore unusual purposes with the software do so because they are repurposing the Excel skills they already have to do their work. If you were planning to manage your finances, do your taxes, or create brochures, your tool of choice in most cases should be a dedicated application.
Tax preparation software, for example, will offer more features than you can build into a worksheet, and it will be updated regularly as laws change. Overall you'll generally benefit from using specialized software, because the features you will need will be baked in and you won't spend time rebuilding something that already exists.