Teach users that simpler is better

End users often make projects much more complex than they need to be. In this article, Jeff Dray uses a real-life example of an Excel spreadsheet with too many bells and whistles to show the benefits of keeping it simple.

Overengineered projects are a headache for end-users and the techs supporting them, which is why I am a great believer in the KISS principle: “Keep It Sweet and Simple.” Recently, I spent more time than was necessary helping a user plod through an excessively complex Excel spreadsheet. We could have both saved a lot of effort if the spreadsheet’s creator had paid attention to the KISS concept. This article describes my encounter with the convoluted spreadsheet and offers a few tips for helping your users to keep it simple.

A database in spreadsheet’s clothing
An end user asked me to help him with a spreadsheet that wasn’t responding correctly to editing changes. The spreadsheet was a simple list that had been created by someone else. At first glance, the spreadsheet seemed simple enough—until we tried manipulating the data. Strange things happened when we deleted, added, or edited any of the cells. I made a copy of the file, and the user and I began to take a closer look.

The person who had supplied the spreadsheet had decided to make things more difficult than was necessary. Instead of a simple list that could be edited by sorting, adding, moving, or removing cells, this spreadsheet contained merged cell subheadings, frozen panes, macros, and who knows what else. These features made the spreadsheet unwieldy and difficult to edit. For example, deleting a merged cell removed some of the content that was still required.

I’m no expert in Excel, and the end user I was helping was even less so. Since there seemed to be no good reason why Excel was required for such a simple list, we pasted the data into a Word table. Then, we were able to sort and edit the list in a few minutes.

Have end user ask these questions
The creator of the list had a wonderful arsenal of tools at his disposal in Excel. Unfortunately, he felt that it was necessary to use as many of them as possible. He had overengineered a simple job and cost the organization time and effort to sort through his work.

To avoid such problems, teach your end-users to always seek the simplest and most effective approach. Before using any feature of a product, end users should always ask themselves:
  1. Is there a simpler way to do this?
  2. Is there a better product for this task?
  3. Will the project’s future users have the same skill level that I have?

The answer to the first question is nearly always “yes.” There will almost always be a more straightforward approach to the task at hand—it just might take a few more minutes to figure out what it is. The same applies to the second question. For example, most people do not need a Microsoft Access database to manage their contact list. Outlook, or what ever e-mail client they have, will suffice. The answer to the third question is usually, “I have no idea,” but that doesn’t get your end users off the hook. Convince them to imagine themselves as one of the project’s future users. Would they struggle to understand how to work with the project?

More end-user training material
If you’re wondering how to get the “keep it simple” message out, try reading these articles for more ideas:
We want to know if you have a great tip for helping end users or other IT pros avoid overengineering. Post a comment or write to Jeff Dray and share your thoughts.

Editor's Picks