Updated: Feb 26
Microsoft Excel remains the go-to software solution for millions of businesses across the globe. It is favoured for its versatility and flexibility, and for the depth of data manipulation and analysis that it allows. And thanks to a new type of platform that turns Excel spreadsheets into apps within minutes, some of the challenges in using Excel have been overcome. Whether you need Excel to collect data, plan projects and analyse risks, report metrics, generate quotes, predict financial outcomes or something as big as production planning or order management, you know it will be there for you. But when it comes to using Excel collaboratively or protect the data efficiently, that’s when things can get really messy. Suddenly, your Excel sheet is crashing, data is corrupted, and you have no idea whether you’re looking at the latest version or not. While this is quite characteristic of unmanaged Excel files, it can frequently occur with managed ones as well. In this case, you may want to consider turning your Excel spreadsheet into a native or web application. This will allow you to reduce some of the common errors related to data management, distribution, and protection, while at the same time offering greater usability. Here are some of the reasons why you should turn your Excel spreadsheet into an app, and how to go about that.
1. Why you should turn your Excel spreadsheet into an app
For all their usefulness, spreadsheets can quickly turn into what’s known as “Excel Hell” due to one or two simple mistakes. Such as when JP Morgan lost about $6.5 billion during the so-called “London Whale” incident because of several faulty equations and copy-pasted cells. So, when do spreadsheets fail and how can turning them into an app help you avoid their pitfalls?
Spreadsheet version control is hard With spreadsheets constantly circulating around, chances are the latest version will get lost sooner or later. Moreover, updates by different people can end up damaging the core data and make the file unusable.
When you move your data to an app, you can limit users’ access to the “master version” of your spreadsheet, and only allow admins to access it. Under this setup, users are only given access to specific data and fields, with everything else remaining hidden. This allows them to conduct the operations they need, without inadvertently corrupting the native spreadsheet.
Excel does not work like a database and is difficult to scale While Excel is a good place to store and manipulate data, it does not offer the functionalities of a database or, rather, of a data management system. Excel does not support complex data types, nor relations between files and records or different sets of data. This limits the types of operations you can perform.
Moreover, when used on a desktop and not online, spreadsheets don’t allow for real-time multi-user input. Your spreadsheet then soon becomes a hindrance to scaling operations and improving efficiency. This is further compounded by the fact that as files grow in size, operations become slower and more cumbersome.
Reversely, by making an app out of your spreadsheet, you can offer your users the advantage of flexible and easy access to data, and data collection from a variety of sources, not just Excel. Plus, you can provide multiple users with access to your know-how, without risk of them overwriting your work or your data getting exposed.
Apps offer greater security Even though a certain level of security, such as password protection, is available in Excel, this can fairly easily be bypassed. If you want to keep your data safe, then retaining it in a spreadsheet that is widely accessible is not a good idea.
By turning your Excel spreadsheet into an app you are effectively removing user access to the source file, encrypting the data, and hosting it securely in your own environment. There, it will be accessible only to users at the admin level. This guarantees the safety and integrity of the data. It also allows you to specifically determine who can see your data and entirely limit third parties from gaining access. You can even set an expiry date to your app after which it will simply stop being accessible to users.
For even greater security, you can initially create your app with dummy data and populate it with your original data later on.
No programming skills needed Unlike with a custom software solution that is coded by hand, you don’t need any programming skills to turn your Excel sheet into an app. This is the case, regardless of which of the myriad functions of Excel you’re using. Such apps are typically native on both iOS and Android devices and available as an in-browser web app across all other platforms.
Turning your spreadsheet into an app is not as costly as a custom solution either. Say you want to develop a web or native app that allows users to perform various types of calculations. This can be very time-consuming and expensive to programme.
Instead, creating these calculations in Excel and then converting them into an app is highly cost and time-efficient, and allows you to mobilise your data without switching your already existing system or files stored online.
Apps are easy to use and accessible For the end-user, an app is always easier to use than an Excel spreadsheet. An app can typically be accessed anytime and anywhere, whereas an Excel spreadsheet can be quite cumbersome to work with on your mobile.
An additional benefit of having an app is that you can automatically roll out updates to your entire network of users. And, with in-built email and push notifications, you can easily notify users of changes and updates which improves your brand’s communication.
Apps can be sold Finally, not only can you easily create an app to meet your clients’ needs but you can also easily publish and sell any such apps to a wider audience. With app creation platforms, you retain ownership over your app and are free to make it as accessible as you wish at all times. While you can only host it with the web app creator you have chosen, the service provider does not have access to your app without explicit permission.
If you’re curious about the kinds of apps you can create by turning a spreadsheet into an app, see the next section for a list and overview of various use cases!
2. What kind of apps can you create from a spreadsheet?
The possibilities for creating an app from a spreadsheet are mostly limited by what you can imagine creating in Excel. The range within which you can create apps varies from data-heavy industries like finance, insurance, healthcare and real estate to simple directory and personal budget apps.
Some of the possible applications of native app and web app development platforms include:
Web calculators for finance, mortgages, insurances, interest, personal finances, and more
Business apps that include checklists, calculators, manuals, an address book or simple CRM
Medical practice apps for patient experience, operations and administration, and more
Personal health and fitness apps for nutrition, food and calorie intake, pregnancy calculators
Business case apps with forecasts, break-even, profit and loss, budget impact models and high-level economics
Dashboards for sales and marketing, such as ROI for B2B sales or advertising campaigns
Production and logistics dashboards and stock inventory lists
Attendance and issue trackers…and many more
These are only some of the possible applications of app development platforms. So, what platforms and tools are available to turn a spreadsheet into an app and how do they work? Here is one of them in more detail – Open as App.
3. How to prepare your sheet before you turn it into an app
Before you submit your spreadsheet to the Open as App platform, you have to make sure that it’s formatted right. This will ease the process of converting it into an app and eliminate the possibility of errors. There are several simple rules to follow when doing this. These are as follow:
Your lists must have headings at the top of the column. This guarantees that the list will be recognised as one by the app wizard and assigned the proper values.
Your data must be clear. Any highlights, crossed-out data, comments or anything else will not be taken into account when your spreadsheet is processed.
Any cells outside a list area will not be taken into account by the wizard. Neither can merged cells be analysed properly. One cell should always have only one input and be within the space of the list it belongs to.
Format your cells accordingly to have their values displayed. The Open as App platform will take into account any values you have ascribed to your cells and add them to your app. Examples of values include the date, currency, phone number, drop-down menu, etc.
Avoid pivot tables (when using Google Sheets) and macros. Macros cannot be included, as that would make apps impossible to use on iOS.
Rules for more complex Excel sheets:
Use explicit cell references rather than structured references; i.e. do not use table or column names but simply direct cell number references.
References to external files cannot be accessed: Any references you make in your Excel file must be part of that file, even if not on the same sheet.
Make sure you’re using formulas that are supported: Over 90% of common formulas are supported by Open as App. However, if you find an error in your app, see if the formulas you have used are supported. Array formulas and certain formulas specific to Google Sheets are not currently supported by the platform.
Always specify all the arguments in a formula: Optional arguments with a default value given to them by Excel cannot be evaluated.
Keeping these rules in mind, you will be able to create your own app within minutes, without any difficulties.
4. How to design your app
Once you have prepared your spreadsheet and upload it to the Open as App platform, you will get a recommendation for your app, then you can pick a design theme you like as well as manually design your app in the way you imagine it. This is possible thanks to the App Designer functionality.
With the App Designer, you can configure each item in your app individually to correspond to your brand identity, as well as more specifically configure how cells function. You can also add additional functionalities.
Once you are in the App Designer, you are given several options.
Preview – this option allows to preview how your app will look but you can also edit or delete individual items, such as the app header and name.
Rearrange elements – with this you can rearrange the elements in your app, group them together as you wish, and even add new pages to fill with extra elements.
Add cell, chart, or list – these options permit you to add new types of content such as cells – if you have new data to incorporate into your app, charts – if you’d like to make your app more interactive and engaging, or lists – if you want to add sub-lists to your calculations.
Change theme – with this function you can change the whole theme of your app, using a predefined layout provided by Open as App.
Add print functionality – this allows you to generate a PDF file through your app and send it via email.
Using the App Designer, you can style your app both visually as well as functionally to match your desired result. You can fine-tune to what extent users can interact with the different contents, as well as enrich the presentation of data thanks to different visual elements such as charts and graphs. All of this takes a minimal amount of time, and the simplicity or complexity of your final app depends entirely on what you want
So what happens once you design and publish your app? Thanks to the way Open as App functions, there is a two-way connection between the sheet and the app. This means that both the sheet and the app are always updated in both ways. At the same time, access to your app and its functionalities is very easy for all users, while all the data remains protected to the extent that you want it to.