The Disadvantages of Spreadsheets

By Keith Evans

Spreadsheet applications provide computer users a convenient way to collect, track and report data. By employing a number of powerful functions, users can quickly and easily assemble comprehensive reports and lay the groundwork for advanced analysis. Despite these benefits, though, spreadsheets include several disadvantages that create challenges for the inexperienced and inhibit users from effectively using the software.

Hidden Functions

Spreadsheet applications offer an extensive library of built in functions, and users who need additional, more advanced features can even program their own functionality. Many of the functions included in powerful spreadsheet applications like Microsoft Excel, though, require the user to know and manually enter many complex formulas. According to the official Microsoft website, Excel spreadsheet users can select basic functions from icons at the top of the spreadsheet view, but users must call more advanced features by manually entering a formula or command into a spreadsheet cell. Users who require a higher level of operation can use the Microsoft’s own programming language, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), to create the functionality, according to Microsoft’s Excel reference website; to meet this need and perform this task though, users must have some familiarity with the VBA language.

Confusion of Use

Spreadsheet applications can appear somewhat intimidating to uninitiated users, and this overwhelming initial appearance can lead users to use the applications for unintended purposes. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, users should employ spreadsheet applications only for purposes of short-term data compilation and analysis, not for the long-term data storage that many users attempt. In addition, some uses of spreadsheets, especially data sorting and sharing, are better handled in databases; the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife specifically indicates that spreadsheets offer limited sorting, querying and sharing abilities while programmers design database applications such as Microsoft Access and Apple Filemaker to serve these purposes. Because many users remain unfamiliar with spreadsheet capabilities, they may continue to ineffectively use spreadsheets for these database functions.

Limits on Simple Functions

Though spreadsheet applications can perform very advanced and highly complex calculations with ease, the software packages often limit or entirely omit simple functionality. According to Murdoch University, spreadsheets lack the ability to calculate simple algebraic equations, and spreadsheet users may experience significant challenges when attempting to graph a function that includes numerous algebraic variables. Many users, too, attempt to type short descriptions or input text data into spreadsheet cells; because spreadsheets revolve almost exclusively around numbers, rather than letters, simple word processing functions may not exist. The absence of word processing functions like spell check and paragraph formatting can create challenges for users who enter considerable amounts of text, embed documentation or wish to create elaborate spreadsheet headers.