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Letter: Converting data-heavy spreadsheets

Can you convert a spreadsheet with lots of data to a great app with Calcapp today? Sagger asked us this question and received a reply from our co-founder David.

We’re happy that most users taking our survey report that learning how to use Calcapp is easy. Sagger, a user experience designer, gave us low marks, though, and reported that he found “pretty much everything” hard to understand. That’s great feedback, as it helps us understand that our user interface isn’t necessarily as easy to understand as we’d like to think it is and to ultimately create a better product. Teaching new users how to use a product is known as “onboarding,” and we’re fully aware that we have work to do in that department. (Our learning resources were recently overhauled with video, but we’d like to offer a true in-app tutorial.)

Sagger sent us the spreadsheet he was looking to convert and it turned out to be heavy on tabular data, which may explain why he had a hard time understanding how to create an app from it (Calcapp isn’t currently a great fit for data-heavy apps). He also remarked that he wanted to see an easier way of getting an overview of his panels (app screens). He received this reply from our co-founder David:

Hi Sagger,

It would be nice if Calcapp Creator could present an overview of your panels, no doubt. We may introduce a sidebar named “Panels” in the future, that will show you a hierarchy of your panels and how they’re related to each other and enable you to rearrange them and quickly move from one panel to another. We will consider that an advanced, optional feature, as my experience is that many users have a hard time working with hierarchies (tree structures). Just look at Windows Explorer — many Windows users aren’t comfortable navigating their folder hierarchies and often save all their files to their desktop. We want to avoid user interface constructs that we think that users will have a hard time working with effectively, or at least make them optional.

About the spreadsheet you sent: Calcapp can easily handle the math in the spreadsheet, but you’ll have a hard time building a user interface for it. In general, Calcapp handles spreadsheets that don’t involve structural modifications better than those that do. By structural modifications, I mean the process of adding and removing rows and columns to accommodate your data. Your spreadsheet is a prime example of a spreadsheet where a user is expected to perform structural modifications — adding columns to the Cash Flow Statement sheet, for instance, to make space for another month.

A spreadsheet that involves no such expectations on the user to make structural modifications is typically heavy on calculations and light on data. That is, users enter values in designated cells, makes a note of the results (presented in other cells) and likely overwrites the data the next time the sheet is used. Calcapp handles those sheets well and they are easy to convert to apps.

Sheets with lots of data are not handled elegantly by Calcapp also because there’s no good way to present all that data. That’s partly a limitation of the user interfaces you can build with Calcapp, where rows can currently only hold one field each. Enabling apps built with Calcapp to more closely resemble spreadsheets isn’t the answer, though, as one of our selling points is that apps are easier to use than spreadsheets on your phone (which often require you to awkwardly scroll horizontally and use pinch-to-zoom to zoom in and out). I would like Calcapp to handle data-heavy apps by giving you the tools necessary to build user interfaces where all that data isn’t visible at the same time, but where your users use tailored user interface elements to navigate the data (such as a drop-down menu allowing you to select, say, a time period).

Also, I think that it’s entirely possible that you found Calcapp confusing because you were looking for a way to express your data-heavy spreadsheet. You likely found that our examples didn’t quite look like the app you had in mind and struggled to understand how to use the user interface constructs Calcapp offers today to express your app.

Truth is, Calcapp isn’t a good fit for your needs today (you’d need to create panels with huge numbers of fields). It would be nice to be able to express this concisely on our web site to set expectations appropriately, but there’s no great way to express “if your spreadsheet is very heavy on data, Calcapp isn’t yet a good fit” without losing users who have needs that can easily be met by Calcapp today.

« Need help converting your spreadsheet? Tip: Manage different versions of your app »