"How do we get people to stop using Excel?"

From Pretend Store


A customer recently asked us the title of this post, but before we get there, a question you should first answer honestly is: Why do you want to stop them? Why do you consider it a bad thing to send data to Excel? Is value created by the act of not using Excel?
"...For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Hamlet, and all Stoic philosophers
Exporting data to Excel is seen as the enemy of modern analytics platforms and their adoption, but I encourage you to look at this behavior without judgment, where there has been a tendency to characterize it as the behavior of dinosaurs who refuse to accept digital transformation.

Objectively, at least some value was created by providing the user an export of governed, consistent data that is updated on a scheduled basis, or the user would not have gone to the trouble. Some may even call this Data as a Service.

Also, objectively, the user is your customer. He or she is the reason you created the interface. Without these people to take action based on the insights you are serving up, no value can possibly be realized. You rely on them, and your goal should be to make their jobs easier.

The path to behavior change

Whew! Now that you have questioned your assumptions and swallowed some perspective, we have the open mind needed to consider the question: "How do we get people to stop using Excel?"

Paraphrasing this interview with Danny Kahneman:
When you are trying to get somebody to change behavior, first ask yourself why they aren't already doing what you want. Removing obstacles to that -- making it easier for them to do what you want -- removes tension from the situation, compared to making it harder for them to do what you don't want.
The negative tack of putting up roadblocks, e.g., disabling the export feature, discourages adoption and is counterproductive to your goal of creating positive outcomes and making people more effective at their jobs. Users will find other, less governed, less efficient, redundant ways to get their data.

A more effective approach is to collaborate with users to find out what they do with exported data. So let us instead rephrase the question more productively: "How do we get people to stop using Excel?" "What do people do with Excel to complement my solution?" Their reasons are likely to be perfectly logical, and if you give them a better option, they will probably do it.
  • Did not know they could do what they needed in the interface, that it may be faster or automated -- training opportunity
  • Routinely do something slightly different than what is available, e.g., "I always calculate the delta between these two columns" -- enhancement opportunity
  • Combine with an export from another interface for a different analysis -- enhancement or net-new solution opportunity
  • Export many versions of this data and email individuals their unique slices of data -- new users or report distribution opportunity
  • Export and then import in another system -- possible data integration or more automated solution opportunity
  • One-offs -- continue, no worries
Once you have listened, find ways to reduce the tension between current and desired behavior -- if there is still a difference. Maybe only a minor change on your part would make their lives much easier, or it may turn out that exporting data is the best balance of solution complexity, effort, and business value, for now. But without talking to people, it is hard to say whether using Excel is undesirable behavior.

Action items

What is the current state of Excel usage alongside your analytic application? You will need some data to answer that! Most analytics platforms log actions like exporting data, enabling you to see who does what, in what applications, with what frequency, so you can prioritize who to contact. Instead of making generalizations, see the exporting of data as implicit feedback and an opportunity to talk to users, meet them where they are, and find a better way to serve them.

With or without this data, include a mechanism for feedback in your interfaces -- even something as simple as an email link. You can even pre-populate the email subject line and body with guiding information using basic HTML to make their inputs as actionable as possible. Set the expectation that many requests are trivial for you to implement, so do not hold back. You could be making your users more effective.

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