Big Improvements Hidden in Plain Sight with Excel 2013

Green Stick Bug

It can be easy to take what we know, and assume that that is all there is to know about it. This is especially true when it comes to evaluating software, and Microsoft Office is the great example. When a new version gets released, we all wonder what they could have possibly added that makes it better than it already is. Sometimes changes are obvious, and quite often sometimes changes are subtle enough to not warrant any fanfare.

Interestingly, it’s often in these subtle improvements where productivity gains are to be found–often hidden in plain sight. Office 2013 is a perfect example of this notion, and Excel 2013 is a great place to start.

Think there’s nothing new in Excel? Read on to learn about three big improvements I think are hidden in plain sight.

Over the years, I’ve had many customers dismiss a new version of a product because they don’t use all of the existing features, or don’t plan to use them. In virtually every instance, this is due to one of two things:

1. They’ve always done it this way.

First, companies have a “process”. Many companies have a way of doing things that executes the day to day business and drives the organization forward. However, process is not absolute. Process is the marriage of circumstance and capability. If circumstances change, process change is an obvious requirement.  However, capability changes can, at times, be elusive. We can get so caught up in the execution of process that we can forget to examine what new capabilities are at our disposal.

2. The perception that what they have is good enough.

Many companies are apathetic. They have taken the perspective that the tools they are using are good enough for the task at hand. They feel that re-learning or re-training is the real villain and the status quo is more efficient in the long run.  However, people change as often as circumstance and capability.  On one hand we have long term users who need to relearn tasks, on the other hand we have folks newer to the workforce that expect efficiencies in the tools they use at home to match the tools they use in the office.

Great Tools for Great Work

In this regard we need to think about equipping our users with great tools to do great work. With Office 2013 we have some old tools with new capabilities that can bring about this productivity boost we are looking for, but sometimes we don’t know where they are or how to use them. We’ve enjoyed a long history of hidden gems in the Office world. Excel in particular has a tradition of having fun, hidden pieces of code, called Easter Eggs, in the program.

My personal favorites are the “Hall of Tortured Souls” Easter egg, hidden in Excel 95, and “Flight Simulator” hidden in Excel 97. The Excel 95 Easter egg, was an homage to the classic video game DOOM and allowed the “player” to travel through a maze until they arrive at a list of the team of developers of Excel 95. The Easter Egg in Excel 97 is a pretty well-built flight simulator that allows you travel to a pyramid looking for the developers’ names again.

These hidden nuggets were a lot of fun, but weren’t really missed because they didn’t add much value to the day of an Excel user. Fast forward to Excel 2013. Excel 2013 has some features that are sure to add value (and time!) to a user’s day. These features aren’t hidden, but are largely unknown and are worth crowing about.

If you have folks using Excel on a regular basis, you are going to love three of the new features Excel brings to the table.

1. Flash Fill

This is by far my favorite, yet subtle, improvement in Excel 2013. I regularly get reports in Excel format and find that the information in them is not tremendously useful to me. The data is there, but I need to massage or tweak it to make it work for me. This data can be a real bear to deal with, so the options are typically take a bunch of time to pull out the pieces you need OR suffer with it and comb through the irrelevant bits every time you need something. Flash Fill gives you an alternative.

In the example below, I am looking at a customer report for our wholesale (and fictitious) Juggling Supply company called Tim’s Juggling Warehouse.  The report shows me the top 3 products sold to each customer as well as the volume of the top product.

Tim's Juggling Warehouse #1

However, it doesn’t isolate the top product itself. Instead I would need to manually go in and pull that out. Flash Fill takes that pain away. Excel 2013 will read the type of data we are trying to pull and automatically fill in the blank. Simply choose a cell and begin to type the pattern of the info you would like to pull out and Flash Fill will pick up on what you are after and offer to complete the effort. In the example below, I am going to pull the top product in each cell and automatically fill it in to a new cell.

Tim's Juggling Warehouse #2

Excel 2013 determined what I was looking for out of the data and suggested to fill it.  From there I hit enter and it is filled.  Minutes just turned in to seconds. I successfully pulled out the top product by volume out of a messy list in 10 seconds. This saved a small about of time in a sheet of 7 rows, but what would it save in a sheet of 100?  1,000? 10,000?

Tim's Juggling Warehouse #3

2. Quick Analysis

We have been conditioned to ignore pop-ups and warnings since the old “You have performed an Illegal Operation” errors of a decade ago. However, in Excel 2013 it pays to pay attention. Excel 2013 will bring you Quick Analysis options upon selecting data that will allow you to choose some specific analysis you are after. Excel 2013 will even suggest charts or Sparklines that best fit the type of data you have selected. If it would communicate best as a pie chart, it will be offered.  If it’s a bar graph…bar graph.

Chart Options

Gone are the days of having to apply a chart then undo. Try another one. Undo. Another. Undo. Take a look at how Excel 2013 will bring your analysis options to you below. In this video I selected the cells that I wanted to analyze and Excel brought forth some Quick Analysis options for me to evaluate. I can move through these options to make fast improvements to the spreadsheet and make fast analysis of the data.

Quick Analysis will help users make better decisions because of better insight. Best of all, Quick Analysis is not great at hiding. Excel 2013 will bring the options to you!

3. BI for the Masses in Excel 2013 – introducing PowerView

The last feature I want to point out has to do with the even further investments in our need to digest data. We get a ton of it, and we need help figuring out what to do with it. In Excel 2013, Professional Plus customers can add on PowerView. PowerView is a Power-ful way of visualizing static spreadsheet data that leaves charting and trending behind, the way jet propulsion leaves behind a rowboat. By taking the business intelligence software (BI) out of the server room and putting it in the hands of our users (via Excel 2013), Microsoft feels it has created “an interactive data exploration, visualization, and presentation experience for all skill levels.” In short, BI is for everyone who needs it. Better yet, it can be executed by everyone who needs it. You don’t need an advanced degree from CalTech to figure it out!

In my “Tim’s Juggling Warehouse” example I am going to select data and choose to create a PowerView of my data.

PowerView #1

Upon inserting, my PowerView opens up as a clean canvas for me to work on. I can drag over relevant columns or categories and analyze my data as I find it relevant to me and my job function.

PowerView #2

Dragging Columns into the PowerView


PowerView #3

It Slices! It Dices!

PowerView promises to bring powerful, visual, ad-hoc to the desktop in a way that is very formidable, but also, very usable. Read more about it and see more examples.

Take This Away

Excel 2013 is a fine example of how something may seem old, yet can be so new. FlashFill, Quick Analysis, and PowerView are in my opinion three very good examples. These are not updates for the sake of releasing a new product. These are reactions to the way that we are working today. Go try it out here or reach out to your friends here at Softchoice. We can get you set up!

Have any burning questions about Excel 2013? Connect with me on Twitter @mckellip, or leave a comment below and I’ll get back you as soon as I can.

About Tim Mckellips

Tim is the Manager of Solutions Architecture and Microsoft Strategy for Softchoice. Throughout the last 15 years, he has been helping customers choose, design, deploy, and adopt technology in the Microsoft technology stacks.