Navigation in Excel

Nobody likes to open an Excel file with 30 tabs. While navigation may not be the most essential component of a spreadsheet’s functionality, it is should be considered the anchor of good spreadsheet design.

Overview

Part 1 the Spreadsheet Design series focuses on navigation. The emphasis spreadsheet developers should place on navigation depends on the scope and size of their project. Large and complex Excel workbooks should have robust navigation features, showing users precisely where they are and how to move around the application. Smaller Excel workbooks may require only simple cues to direct users around a dashboard or data entry form.

While there is no agreed upon consensus on how spreadsheet navigation should be implemented, a good approach may be to mimic desktop software and web-based applications. Given that users are already familiar with web-based navigation principles, implementation in your Excel application will provide users with some familiarity.

As a first step, visit websites you frequently use — think about what you find useful and efficient about their menu setups. Take a look at the sites and ask yourself what you like and dislike about them. Can the setups be mimicked in Excel? Another approach is to visit a number of web-design blogs and guides, allowing you to research web-based design and navigation concepts.

While there are varying opinions on how to implement proper navigation, there seems to be a few consistent themes among most articles and examples. Some of these themes are as follows:

It should be consistent.

Consistency has become the most important rule for website navigation since the mid-2000s. By providing consistent menus and features throughout a website—usually through a horizontal menu at the top of a page—users can access every top-level page within the website, regardless of which page they are currently viewing. Excel’s built in spreadsheet tabs—at the bottom of every Excel file in a toolbar—provide consistency, but the tab toolbar has many drawbacks from a proper design perspective. These drawbacks will be discussed later in this series.

Any alternative to tabs is to have a “home” page or workbook table of contents. While this may work in some situations, it’s important to provide the user with consistent methods of navigating to and from the contents page (similar to how you may use a back button in a web browser).

The user should always know where they are.

Using the website analogy once again, most web users will have multiple websites in one session through multiple browser tabs or windows. They may later return to a pre-loaded site and will require a visual cue to tell them where they left off. Visual cues through titles or menu highlights can tell users where they are within a site.

Within an Excel workbook, this can serve two purposes. First, for robust workbooks with multiple dashboards and data entry forms, a visual cue will quickly remind the user which screen they are looking at. Second, for workbooks that require multiple data sources and calculation criteria, visual cues can provide guidance as to where they are in the process and remind them what steps are needed to finalize the output.

Ensure that content is properly classified.

Navigation titles and cues should be specific enough to let a user know what part of the application they are going to. This can be better explained by providing an example of what not to do. If a navigation menu contains a link for “Settings”, and another for “Options”, it may not be obvious to the user where to go to, for say, to change screen size or other application attributes. Make sure any top level navigation options will be clear to first time users.

Provide consistent visuals and layout.

This rule is important both in terms of general layout and navigation — it is important that users see a consistent layout and design standards throughout your Excel workbook. This helps provide familiarity with features and ease of use. Attributes like width of content or theme colors are essential for providing consistent visuals.

Tutorials

The following navigation exercises provide three methods of developing a horizontal menu bars. While this overview is not fully inclusive, the menu bar is the most effective approach for addressing each of the rules mentioned in this post.

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