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Introducing Spreadsheets in Google Docs

Steve and Nancy Holzner provide basic background about spreadsheets and then dive into what you need to know to create your own spreadsheets using Google Docs.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

How did people ever keep track of things before there were spreadsheets? A spreadsheet is an unbelievably useful tool for organizing data. Your money, the kids' chores, your rare book collection, your holiday card list, your company's products or customers, your project team's tasks and due dates—anything that you can put in a list would probably work in a spreadsheet.

Of course, spreadsheets aren't just for storing information—they're for working with it. Sort data (to group customers by town, for example, or your rare books by value). Format data to emphasize deadlines or totals and set up rules that apply formatting automatically when certain conditions apply.

This chapter presents an introduction to spreadsheets: what they are and how to design a good spreadsheet and start working on it. Along the way, you'll also learn how to format your spreadsheet, create multiple sheets, work with rows and columns, and enter data more efficiently.

Spreadsheet Basics

Before you start creating spreadsheets in Google Docs, it's a good idea to get the basics down for what a spreadsheet is and how best to design one. Of course, if you're already a spreadsheet power-user, feel free to skip this section and dive into the specifics about getting started with Docs spreadsheets.

What Is a Spreadsheet?

A spreadsheet stores, organizes, and performs calculations on data. Its layout is a grid made up of horizontal rows and vertical columns, like a big table. Where a row and column intersect is a rectangular box, called a cell. Cells hold individual pieces of information, such as a number, date, currency amount, name, or other text. A cell can also be empty or hold a formula, a mathematical equation that calculates a value (more on formulas in Chapter 7, "Spreadsheets: Formulas and Charts").

A spreadsheet can hold an enormous amount of data. In Google Docs, each spreadsheet you create can have up to 256 columns, 200,000 cells, or 100 sheets—whichever comes first. Your spreadsheet can have as many rows as it needs (within those limits).

Spreadsheets are often used for working with financial data, such as a family budget, business expenses, or investment portfolio information. You can use a spreadsheet, though, to hold and organize other kinds of information as well—your CD collection, a newsletter mailing list, employee information, a weekly work schedule, and so on. Spreadsheets' flexibility is what makes them so popular.

What Can a Cell Contain?

Earlier, we said that cells contain data, that is, pieces of information. You can put just about any kind of data you desire into a spreadsheet, using one of these datatypes:

  • Text—In a spreadsheet, text can be letters and words, numbers, or a combination of both. The text you put in a spreadsheet might be labels, descriptions, names, addresses, notes, phone numbers, employee IDs—whatever you want.
  • Numbers—You could easily argue that numbers are the raison d'être for spreadsheets because a spreadsheet is such a powerful tool for performing calculations. You can format numbers to represent a particular kind of data, such as currency amounts, percentages, dates, and times.
  • Formulas—As Chapter 7 explains, a formula performs calculations on the data in your spreadsheet. Formulas range from simple operations, such as adding or averaging a column of numbers, to complex statistical or engineering calculations. When you insert a formula into a cell, what the cell displays is the result of that formula.

What Makes a Good Spreadsheet Design?

Anyone who works with spreadsheets will tell you that a spreadsheet needs two things to be effective: good design and good data. And these two qualities go hand in hand. A well designed spreadsheet calls for the best data. In addition, good spreadsheet design facilitates the main goals of working with spreadsheets:

  • To understand the purpose of the spreadsheet
  • To read the spreadsheet's data
  • To use that data for analysis
  • To notice important aspects of the data
  • To update the spreadsheet easily

Let's look at a quick, simple example to illustrate spreadsheet design. Say you want to set up a spreadsheet to track your progress on a project: a book or report you're writing. This spreadsheet will hold several kinds of information: segments of the project (these could be sections or chapters; we'll call them chapters in the example), milestones, and the dates those milestones are reached. Knowing the kinds of information your spreadsheet will track, you can start to design it.

Give the Spreadsheet a Title

A title makes the spreadsheet's purpose clear. For the example, you'd probably choose a title such as Track Project or Book Progress.

Define Columns

Column headings are important in a spreadsheet because they tell you the kind of information the column holds. Without clear headings, a spreadsheet can look like little more than a vast sea of numbers. With good headings, you know exactly what those numbers represent.

In the Book Progress spreadsheet, you might identify these points as the major milestones:

  • First Draft Finished
  • Second Draft Finished
  • Edits Reviewed
  • Revision Completed

Each of these columns will contain a particular type of data. In this case, all of the columns we've defined so far will contain dates so that we can track exactly when we achieved each milestone.

Besides the date columns that show when you've reached each milestone, you can give your spreadsheet a little extra oomph with a different kind of column. Say you wanted a column to keep track of the number of pages in your book. This column—we'll call it Page Count—holds numbers. After you've used this column to hold the number of pages for a couple of chapters, you can create a formula to add up the numbers in the column and display a running total. (Chapter 7 tells you how to write a spreadsheet formula.)

Define Rows

As we look at the milestones we've used to define our column headings, another question arises. What, exactly, are we tracking? We can't determine when we've reached a milestone until we know the answer to that question.

For a book, it makes sense to track the progress of each chapter. That breaks the information down into discrete, manageable units. So for Chapter 1, you can read across the row and track the dates that each milestone was met.

Defining the spreadsheet's rows as chapters means we need to add one more column heading: Chapters. Although it might seem obvious, as you read down the leftmost column, that it contains chapters, it's always a good idea to label columns so there's no doubt what the column holds. Also unlike the milestone columns, which hold dates, the Chapters column will hold plain old numbers. We won't use these numbers to perform any kind of calculation (the column could also be a text column), but formatting the data as numbers here automatically makes those numbers right-aligned, so the digits line up correctly as you read down the column.

Another benefit to defining the rows as chapters is that it's easy to update the spreadsheet if the book changes. For example, if we decide to add an appendix, all we need to do is start a new row called Appendix.

Ask Yourself Whether Your Spreadsheet's Design Serves Its Purpose

Use the list of goals for a spreadsheet defined at the beginning of this section as a checklist to see whether your spreadsheet is well designed:

  • Is the spreadsheet's purpose clear?
  • Is it clear what each piece of data represents?
  • Are columns and rows clearly labeled?
  • Is it easy to spot important information?
  • Can the spreadsheet be updated easily? (If new information would force a drastic redesign of the spreadsheet, it's better to redesign it now rather than later when it's filled with data.)

Figure 6.1 shows the sample spreadsheet we've designed.

Figure 6.1

Figure 6.1 In this example columns and rows are clearly labeled, and highlighting makes important information easy to find.

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