Excel 2013 – Dumbing down or simply smarter?

A business report containing a number of colourful charts and graphs.

With each new incarnation of Office we are introduced to new features. The change from 2003 to 2007 was one of the more dramatic changes, with a complete overhaul of the interface. The Ribbon is now the standard and continues through 2010 and again in the latest offering, 2013.

The whole Ribbon concept was supposed to make life easier for users and to be fair, I think that is true. Now that I have been using the Ribbon for a number of years, I actually don’t like using the old menus and toolbars!

So now that the Ribbon is part of our Office life, what can Microsoft add to the applications to make them better? 2007 had lots of little annoying bugs and couldn’t be really customised; all that was fixed in 2010 which also added some great new features such as Slicers and Sparklines and some useful new functions. So what could they possibly do to make Excel 2013 even more exciting and powerful?

The Ribbon is still there, although it looks a bit washed out and in some ways unfinished, but essentially it’s the same thing.

Excel2013-Ribbon

The biggest changes are data manipulation and presentation.

When you create a data table you now have something called QUICK ANALYSIS.

Excel2013-Suggestions

You get a popup window with what amount to suggestions on what to do with your data table. Do you want to apply special formatting? Create charts? Put in totals?

Not only do you get these sorts of “suggestions” but you also get them for charts and Pivot tables. So do these additions to the Excel arsenal mean that Excel is dumbing down, or is it getting smarter and making life easier for us?

For years, people who did not know how to apply conditional formatting, create charts or Pivots would simply give up or mess things up badly. With the new suggestions popups, it opens up a lot of the “advanced” functionality to the masses; in fact it positively encourages them to use far more of Excel’s features. So on the one hand, these are brilliant because they help your everyday user of Excel to achieve things that were either virtually impossible or at best difficult to achieve without help or training. The problem though is that people will start using these suggestions without really understanding what they do, or when the best time to use them is. So this is a bit of a double edged sword; great new features making Excel far more accessible to all but opening a can of worms in terms of possible inappropriate use of those same features.

Excel2013-RecommendedCharts

For the more advanced user, PowerPivot and Power Views are the great new data analysis and visualisation tools. PowerPivot first appeared as a free add-in in 2010 but is now standard. With PowerPivot you can link whole databases and run queries across multiple tables. In some ways this is a bit of an Access killer as you can now manage relationships between tables as well as link into SQL databases etc, giving you the ability to analyse vast amounts of data from multiple sources. The Power View is another great feature giving you the possibility to create dashboards incorporating multiple pivots, maps and charts.

Excel2013-Overview

So has Microsoft made Excel 2013 smarter or dumbed it down? I believe it’s the latter; whilst Excel 2013 takes a step in the right direction by opening up functionality to users, the new features actually have the potential to cause more problems than they solve. Whereas seasoned Excel users will have a good idea of how their data should be visualised, those inexperienced with creating charts will believe that the chart type Excel suggests is a “good” one to use because it is recommended to them, when in fact it could be totally wrong for the message they are trying to convey. Of all the charts available in Excel only a few are actually appropriate for data visualisation, with many being misleading or difficult to read.

Nevertheless, PowerPivot, Power views and the fabulous Timeline feature, which allows users to filter data by date using a slider over a timescale, will certainly excite the more advanced number crunchers out there. It may not be radically different to 2007 or 2010 but there are enough improvements and clever features to put a smile on most Excel users’ faces.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in our article on the growing impact of e-learning from Enhance issue 2.