Excel consultants know that requirements gathering exercises can look deceptively simple. Whether that be for creating a dashboard for the client or an Excel application, there is always something in hindsight that one could have done better.
Let’s not depend solely on our own mistakes to become better Excel consultants. Our in-house team of Excel experts, accompanied by Chandoo, the CEO of Chandoo.org, all the way from India, are here to save us some miseries.
What are we waiting for? Let’s get started.
1 – Excel is a Tool
The underlying theme of the whole discussion was that Excel consultants should always know that Excel is a tool that is used to achieve something. It is not an end in itself. Hence, one should always prioritize client requirements over what can Excel be used to achieve.
2 – Understanding Business Requirements
Chandoo emphasized that 40 to 50 percent of one’s time should be devoted to understanding the business model of the client and their requirements. One should forget Excel completely and focus on the getting the requirements in a straightforward way.
For illustration, let’s say that you are tasked with creating a dashboard to facilitate better decision-making across the organization. For dashboard implementation, chart-selection and choosing between different Excel techniques should not even be a consideration when gathering requirements. Also, there is even no need to employ a fancy tool for this requirements gathering: just a pen and a paper and you are good to go.
3 – Understanding User Requirements
Understanding user requirements is as important as understanding business requirements. Oz mentioned a few questions that one can start with:
- Why is the Excel dashboard or application needed?
- If there is something similar already available within the ERP system, what is missing in it that a version in Excel is needed?It might be that the system can generate reports but not until two weeks after and the client needs something in real-time.
- Who will be the users and what are their skill level when it comes to Excels?If, let’s say, the users are not that skilled, then there is a high probability that they will mess up the model. Hence, it would make sense to limit their control over structure of the product and build in layers of validation.
He also warned against an element of surprise in Excel consultancy work: the client might not be aware of what could be done in Excel. And after seeing your final product, might ask for a revision that is totally different from what the client initially wanted.
In the same vein, Rick said that there is another side to this surprise. When the dashboards are very visual and used mainly by executives, they may realize that something else would be more relevant. And this usually happens several months after you have delivered the final product.
4 – Mock-Ups
Chandoo also highlighted the importance of mock-ups. Once the requirements are with us, the next step should be to dive in the details and create a sample of what the final product should look like. This can be done using simple tools such as Paint, PowerPoint or Word, or even something more designed in Excel (such as by using Michael Alexander’s DataPig Dashboard Tools Add-in).
This step is very important. Getting validation on your presentation ideas prior to gathering data and designing the dashboard will save a lot of time. This is because there is lesser chance the client will ask for a different design, from the one he had already agreed upon, once you’re done.
5 – Mock-Ups Done Well Before Time
Rick also mentioned that the artistic side of Excel consultancy is the most attractive. Hence, many a times these consultants spend hours chalking up mock-up dashboards, for example, without knowing if data would be available to support the calculations once implementation phase sets in. This just results in billing a lot of wasted time.
Jordan highlighted that fact that presenting mock-ups in an iterative process. You start with something and then change it as you get a better idea of client requirements and available data. Hence, putting in hours and hours to create mock-ups, especially towards the start, is just a plain wastage of one’s time.
6 – Dealing with Executives
Jordan said in the video that it is normally assumed that executives want a high-level picture of the situation. But one needs to be wary of this assumption. There might be executives who are very thorough in their approach and, therefore, need detailed picture of the organization.
Share these tips with your fellow Excel consultants. Also, let us know how your experience has been in the comments section below.
Really good tips, thank you. Loving the more frequent mini-posts like this, by the way.
Like any consulting project, you want to define your problem and constrain the results to solving that problem. I’ve had too many dashboards add “just one more thing” until it became illegible.
Remind the client that if you are trying to measure everything, you’re measuring nothing. The dashboard is not to meant to encompass all of reality, it is meant to aid a specific objective.
I see Excel consultancy work as a combination of: Business Analysis, Development, and Data Visualization (If you’re doing it alone, there is also some Project Management involved.). Many of the items discussed are tenants and best practices of the Business Analyst profession and the Project Management profession. Full Disclosure: I am a Business Analyst working in Technology.
I agree with #1: I love Excel and technology in general, but technology is not always the answer. Sometimes the solution to a business need/request is a change to business process(es). In the case of Dashboards, perhaps they’re trying to measure the wrong things, or the data itself is inaccurate/incomplete.
I also totally agree with Chandoo’s comment on #2. If you don’t spend the time to get the requirements right, your solution will likely be off the mark.
This also may be obvious, but get formal approval of the requirements. It is a bit of a CYA step, but it is important to have a common understanding of what is being requested.