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David G. Hendry & Thomas R. G. Green


Ten discretionary users were asked to recount their experiences with spreadsheets and to explain how one of their sheets worked. The transcripts of the interviews are summarized to reveal the key strengths and weaknesses of the spreadsheet model.

There are significant discrepancies between these findings and the opinions of experts expressed in the Human-Computer Interface (HCI) literature, which has tended to emphasize the strengths of spreadsheets and to overlook the weaknesses. In general, the strengths are such as allow quick gratification of immediate needs, while weaknesses are such as make subsequent debugging and interpretation difficult, suggesting a situated view of spreadsheet usage in which present needs outweigh future needs.

We conclude with an attempt to characterize three extreme positions in the design space of information systems: the incremental addition system, the explanation system and the transcription system. The spreadsheet partakes in the first two. We discuss how to improve its explanation facilities.


We offer the following conclusions:

  • Even for simple problems spreadsheet formulae are not always easy to create or understand.
  • It is not enough to listen only to users or to human-computer interface (HCI) experts. At least in the present case, their different backgrounds and experience with spreadsheets have made different aspects salient.
  • The cognitive dimensions framework offers a balanced view.
  • The profile from the cognitive dimensions framework can give some useful indication of what type of activity the device is suited for - incremental, transcription or presentation.
  • CogMap was presented, not so much to show "how to build a better spreadsheet" but more as an example of how this analysis can give design guidance on making the device more suitable for one type of activity without sacrificing its effectiveness for another type.
  • Finally, lest there be any doubts: there is still much to learn about how people use spreadsheets, and spreadsheet ecology.


1994, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 40, Issue 6, June, pages 1033–1065

Full article

Creating, comprehending and explaining spreadsheets