Maybe we shouldn’t have given in to spreadsheets so easily. Maybe we shouldn’t have let bookkeepers and accountants dictate how we’d track creative projects for decades to come. But we did. And spreadsheets, with their infinite, versatile expandability, are extremely useful eyesores that have taken over, not just number crunching, but project management. (For lack of a better solution, we even organize our stories through spreadsheets on Co.Design. I am, however, strongly lobbying for the use of some buttonless, amorphous art installation to handle the job instead.)
Still, beyond cloud collaboration and more powerful graphing, not much has changed in spreadsheets in the last 20 years. In an effort to create consistent products, products like Excel grew stagnant. And Google Docs never tried to do much more than put Excel in the cloud (which was enough to revolutionize everything). “As the cloud has changed the nature of how apps can reconstitute themselves, the spreadsheet providers haven’t responded,” Brent Frei tells Co.Design. He founded Smartsheet, a half-spreadsheet, half-product-management tool. It’s a blend of good ideas–a little bit Google Docs, crossed with some of the best pieces of Basecamp.
“Talk to anyone who uses spreadsheets to manage projects or processes, and you’ll hear them talk vividly about ‘spreadsheet hell.’ They describe how they’ve fought with version control, historical changes, and lack of automation in calendaring and task follow-up–to name a few issues,” writes Frei. “Invariably, this drives them to look for a purpose-built tool for that particular job. Across every functional need in a company, this pattern eventually leads to lots of disparate tools that have no relevance in other departments.”
He’s right. How many of us have to juggle Gmail, Google Docs, and Basecamp or something similar, just to work on relatively basic projects? Smartsheet doesn’t look much different than any other spreadsheet at first glance, but it fits in extremely powerful (and new) functions within the classic spreadsheet layout–using shorthand we know in the Internet world but maybe not in the spreadsheet world. It mashes spreadsheets and project management tools together like peanut butter with jelly and clocks with radios.
For instance, you can attach any sort of file to any row. (And you’ll recognize the function because it looks like a simple paper clip.) This, alone, is a killer feature that you won’t find in the mainstay spreadsheet apps, and it eliminates an upload through another service.
You can also comment on any row (indicated by a dialog bubble), which opens a whole discussion thread, should anyone want to respond. Then, this discussion can be emailed with a click to anyone. Again, you save a trip to your email app of choice, along with an awkward copy and paste and an explanation as to what you’re actually referring to.
I guess it’s the little things, like tabbing to a collaborative calendar instantly (why can’t I do this with GDocs?), assigning email updates to users of certain rows only (again, why can’t I do this in GDocs?), one button change tracking (I won’t mention the GDocs thing again), or the fact that you can flesh out any spreadsheet with an interactive Gantt chart (which is a bit intense for me, but slave-driving bosses will love). And it solves the problem of interoperability by just making itself compatible with Google Docs, rather than stubbornly entrenching itself in its own platform.
Smartsheet is available for a 30-day trial, after which time it costs $15.95/month. If it could save you an hour of emails each week, well, it’s probably a bargain.