Why a machine can't teach you Excel or Google Sheets

Google fails more often than you think

I read an article recently that made me want to predict the future. The products that Google releases have failed or been cancelled both at a rate of approximately 36%. I predict that an “enhancement” to Google Sheets recently announced and installed by Google will join that graveyard. The new feature added to Google Sheets appears when you create a PivotTable, and in plain English it is a few suggestions about how you might want to build your PivotTable (what should go in the rows and columns, and what should be counted up). If you aren’t familiar with what a PivotTable is, it is functionality in Excel and Google Sheets that is most commonly used to help you group and count different information in your spreadsheet - also known as aggregating your data. And I predict that the supposed “upgrade” to PivotTables will fall on its face as a big failure.

The future is totally unpredictable - so why am I so confident about this particular failure from Google?

I am going to make my case in 3 simple points, all of which are a response to an article about the new feature that I am going to brutally break down. No disrespect meant to the author of this article, but I am going to rip apart a bunch of what they have written.


Point #1: The term “Power User” is dumb, and this new feature won’t even help you learn how to use Sheets to gain insights.

What is a “Power User”? This article seems to think that the difference between us regular folks and Power Users is the ability to use PivotTables. Get ready to be de-throned, Power Users, because the word is out that anyone can learn PivotTables!! But we all have an idea of what it means to be a Power User - someone who seems to know a lot and can do a lot of different things in Sheets or Excel. But it isn’t really the technical skills that give Power Users their, well, superpowers. Power Users can do what they do because they have the mindsets and some focused learning needed to be able to take an idea of what they want to see or do with their data and to use Sheets or Excel to make that happen. The new feature in Sheets skips the learning and the mindsets, and simply tries to make suggestions about how to aggregate or count your rows and columns of data. It doesn’t teach you how you might come to those suggestions on your own, and will leave people cycling through all of the suggestions trying to understand why they were chosen when they don’t make much sense.


Point #2: Human beings are necessary to make sense of real (i.e. messy) data.

Real data is messy and comes with a lot of asterisks. Only a human will know and understand the real-world context surrounding the data and be able to address it. There is no way (at least right now) for a computer to make suggestions for your data that really are aimed at garnering greater insights (unless it gets lucky in its suggestions, which is just random happenstance if it works). This is especially true for people working in non-profits and education. The example given in the article is simple and irrelevant to much mission-driven work: “For example, someone could create a pivot table that takes a spreadsheet full of sales transactions and outputs how much revenue is attributable to each salesperson.” First of all, mission-driven work isn’t about transactions, outputs, and revenue. It is about transformations, services, and impact. Can I see an example of how a PivotTable can answer questions about that? Sheets might look for words like profit, revenue, sales, items, salesperson, or anything similar when making suggestions for how to roll up information in PivotTables. But if your column headers are not in this same genre and your data isn’t set up cleanly, if won’t be able to make any meaningful suggestions at all - it just doesn’t know how. A human being will still need to tell Sheets what to do, not the other way around!


Point #3: Everyone can learn how to use PivotTables, and it is insulting to suggest otherwise.

This new feature (and the article) FAR underestimate your abilities to learn the mindsets and foundational skills that are needed to make the most of PivotTables and Sheets in general. Many people are already doing the aggregation of data that PivotTables makes easier - they are just doing it manually with lots of counting, sorting, summing up formulas, and other workarounds. With the right mindsets and approaches, such as sketching out your questions and the insights you want to gain, it is really only a short jump to learn the technical skills for how to use PivotTables. Consider this statement from the article: “Google hopes that these features will help make it more accessible for people who don’t have PhDs in spreadsheet manipulation to use the same features that their power user friends are already familiar with.” Are you kidding me? First of all, a PhD in spreadsheet manipulation? That is absolutely ridiculous. Excel and Sheets ARE accessible to anyone. A big problem is that most of the resources that are available to teach people how to use Excel and Sheets just teach the technical skills, and mostly in technical language. But these technical skills come much easier to learn when the right mindsets are in place.


Because real data is messy, and using it to gain insights requires real human intervention, and because using technical functionality before you understand why you are using it often leads to frustration and wasted time, I predict that this new feature in Google Sheets will not help most people and will not teach anyone how to become more skilled at aggregating data and using it for insights, and will therefore be put in the graveyard of unhelpful and unpopular Google products. And if you take away only one thing from anything I’ve said here, make it this:

Don’t underestimate yourself - there is no definition of a “Power User” and no PhD in spreadsheet manipulation. You are 100% capable of learning and using Excel or Sheets in your context, and making it work for you.



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