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Bennett Kankuzi & Jorma Sajaniemi


To address the problem of errors in spreadsheets, we have investigated spreadsheet authors' mental models in a hope of finding cognition-based principles for spreadsheet visualization and debugging tools. To this end, we have conducted three empirical studies.

The first study explored the nature of mental models of spreadsheet authors during explaining and debugging tasks. It was found that several mental models about spreadsheets are activated in spreadsheet authors' minds. Particularly, when explaining a spreadsheet, the real-world and domain mental models are prominent, and the spreadsheet model is suppressed; however, when locating and fixing an error, one must constantly switch back and forth between the domain model and the spreadsheet model, which requires frequent use of the mapping between problem domain concepts and their spreadsheet model counterparts.

The second study examined the effects of replacing traditional spreadsheet formulas with problem domain narratives in the context of a debugging task. Domain narratives were found to be easy to learn and they helped participants to locate more errors in spreadsheets. Furthermore, domain narratives also increased the use of the domain mental model and appeared to improve the mapping between the domain and spreadsheet models.

The third study investigated the effects of allowing spreadsheet authors to fix errors by editing domain narratives, thus relieving them from the use of traditional low-level cell references. This scenario was found to promote spreadsheet authors using even more of their domain mental model in a manner that completely overshadowed the use of their spreadsheet mental model. Thus, from a mental model perspective, it is possible to devise a new spreadsheet paradigm that uses domain narratives in place of traditional spreadsheet formulas, thus automatically presenting spreadsheet content so that it prompts spreadsheet authors to think in a manner that closely corresponds to their mental models of the application domain.


Mental model
Mental model

An illustration of the mapping between domain, real-world, and spreadsheet mental models in the error fixing task.


2016, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 86, February, pages 149-163

Full article

A mental model perspective for tool development and paradigm shift in spreadsheets