The Secret to Using SUMIF

Today we’re going to learn about some features of Excel and how they interact.

  • Tables and how they’re named

We’re going to do this with a little problem our hypothetical boss has given us. It’s the end of the first quarter. She would like to know how much each client has paid us for this quarter.

We’re going to get all of this information from a little ledger she sent us. She’s no Excel expert, but she’s meticulous about records. This means we have plenty to work with just from this little table.

Date Client Source Work Type Payment
1/2/2017 Hogwarts Nepotism IT Consulting $ 1,729.00
1/4/2017 Torchwood Advertising Copywriting $ 2,020.00
1/9/2017 Bene Gesserit Competitive Bid Training $ 1,900.00
1/9/2017 The Royal Frog Trampling Institute Competitive Bid IT Consulting $ 3,829.00
1/11/2017 The Monitor’s Guild Competitive Bid Training $ 4,983.00
1/31/2017 Church of All Worlds Competitive Bid IT Consulting $ 4,422.00
2/1/2017 Torchwood Advertising Training $ 1,772.00
2/3/2017 Council of Elrond Advertising Training $ 1,029.00
2/3/2017 The Royal Frog Trampling Institute Competitive Bid Training $ 2,063.00
2/5/2017 Church of All Worlds Competitive Bid Copywriting $ 2,929.00
2/8/2017 Hogwarts Nepotism Copywriting $ 1,943.00
2/8/2017 The Monitor’s Guild Competitive Bid Training $ 3,872.00
2/10/2017 Bene Gesserit Competitive Bid IT Consulting $ 5,026.00
2/14/2017 The First Order Nepotism IT Consulting $ 2,032.00
2/28/2017 Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters Nepotism Training $ 3,098.00
3/2/2017 Bene Gesserit Competitive Bid Training $ 4,465.00
3/5/2017 Torchwood Advertising Copywriting $ 1,072.00
3/5/2017 Torchwood Advertising Training $ 1,943.00
3/6/2017 Hogwarts Nepotism IT Consulting $ 2,063.00
3/7/2017 The Royal Frog Trampling Institute Competitive Bid IT Consulting $ 2,972.00
3/8/2017 Torchwood Advertising Copywriting $ 3,872.00
3/13/2017 Bene Gesserit Competitive Bid Training $ 5,026.00
3/15/2017 Hogwarts Nepotism IT Consulting $ 1,072.00
3/16/2017 Hogwarts Nepotism Training $ 2,075.00
3/30/2017 The Royal Frog Trampling Institute Competitive Bid IT Consulting $ 3,141.00
4/2/2017 The Monitor’s Guild Competitive Bid Copywriting $ 1,772.00

This is just a ledger that records the date, the client, how we got the client, what work we did for the client, and how much we were paid.

The first thing we will do is turn this array into a table. This will make the rest of the calculations easier.

Tables in Excel

To turn an array into a table in Excel:

  1. Select the range you would like to make a table. (For the purposes of this exercise, that’s going to be cells A1:E27)
  2. On the Home tab in the Styles group, click on Format as Table.
  3. Choose the table style you would like.
  4. Make sure that in the Format as Table dialog box, the My table has headers checkbox is checked.
  5. Click OK.

You have now formatted your array as a table. This is more than pretty formatting, however, but also means you have created an object with some specific functions.

Before we get to the problem our boss has asked us to solve, I want to do one more thing – name the table. If you are going to be using more than one table in a spreadsheet, and will be performing calculations from more than one table, it is a good idea to give each table a meaningful name. While we are not going to go quite that far in this exercise, it’s a good general habit.

To Name a Table in Excel:

  1. Make sure a cell in the table is selected.
  2. Look at the top of your screen at the different tabs for ribbons. The last one should be Design with a Table Tools as a label above it. Click on it.
  3. On the Table Tools:Design ribbon in the Properties group, you will see a Table Name text box.
  4. Type the name you want for your table and press <Enter> on your keyboard. (We’re calling this table “Ledger”)

Now that we have formatted the array as a table, we are going to look back at what our boss wants.

The first thing she wants is how much each client has paid. We will start by creating another little array. Then we will use the SUMIF function to add up how much each client has paid us. As we go through this, you will see why I prefer to do this as a table rather than just keeping the array as-is. For the purposes of this exercise, we’re presuming that we’ll be starting an array to the side of the Ledger table starting in cell G1. The formula we will use in cell H2 will be:

=SUMIF(Ledger[Client], G2, Ledger[Payment])

Let’s break this down, as it might look like gobbledygook at first.

The function we will use is SUMIF, so we start with =SUMIF.

The syntax for the Sumif function is:

=SUMIF(range, criteria, sumrange)

So, the range is the comparison. In this case, we want the function to look in the Client column of the Ledger table, which is written as Ledger[Client], with the table name and the column name in brackets right beside it.

Then we want to know the criteria for comparison. There are a couple of ways to do this. You could look for specific text by putting it in quotes. So, we could have written it as “Bene Gesserit” (You put quotes around text you’re searching for). Which begs the question, why did I use the cell reference G2 instead? Well, mostly because I am lazy. I want to be able to write this equation once, then use autofill to complete the rest of the array.

The last thing we want to know is where to look for the values for which we want a total. In this case it is in the Payment column of the Ledger table, so we use Ledger[Payment].

Client Total
Bene Gesserit =SUMIF(Ledger[Client], G2, Ledger[Payment])
The Royal Frog Trampling Institute
The Monitor’s Guild
Church of All Worlds
Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters
The First Order
Council of Elrond

Pop quiz. If I did not set this up as a table, but left the array as-is, could I have used cell references instead?

My word, yes. In this particular example,

=SUMIF(Ledger[Client], G2, Ledger[Payment])

would become:

=SUMIF($B$2:$B$27, G2, $E$2:$E$27)

Notice that I made the cell references absolute? Again, lazy. I want to be able to write this formula once and copy down.

So, why would I not do it that way?

This is a personal choice thing, but I tend to try to give meaningful names to ranges of data I am manipulating so that I can think about what data I am trying to pull rather than being bogged down in making sure cell references match exactly. (Great at math, suck at arithmetic, what can I say?)

Tables are not the only way to do this. Stay tuned next week, where we’ll talk about Named Ranges and how to use them.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have!

Using Styles to Format a Large Document

Formatting a large document can be a tedious process. Between pagination, making sure that chapter headings work correctly and making a table of contents, you might think you need someone to manage these things full time. You don’t, though. Word can do a lot of this for you. Today we’re going to look at two things – customizing a Style so that you can have a chapter title appear on a new page each time, and then using those styles to create a table of contents.

Customizing Word Styles

This is a lot less esoteric than you’d think. As always, right-click is your friend.

You’ll right-click on the style you want to modify. In our example, we want Heading 1 to be our chapter title and we want that chapter to start on its own page. So, we right-click on Heading 1 on the Home tab in the Styles group.

So, we’re going to change the style, right? Modify is another word for change. Let’s click on it and see what happens.

Lookie there! We get the Modify style dialog box.

Now, from here, we’re going to need to change the way a style is formatted. Using our superior powers of deduction, we’re going to look and see what we can press to do that. Wouldn’t you know it, there is a Format button for us to click on.

This is less intuitive. We’re going to need to click on Paragraph. I know, not as obvious as it could be in this case.

Now by default, it is going to show you the Indents and Spacing tab. What you really need in this case is the Page and Line Breaks. Once you’ve clicked on that, select Page Break Before. Then click okay to close the Page and Line Breaks tab, and click OK to close the Modify styles window.

Now, you don’t have to manually add a page break each time you start a new chapter. Just format the chapter with a Heading 1 style, and you’re good to go!

Creating a Table of Contents

Adding a table of contents

You can use Word to generate a table of contents from headings in a document. To be included in the table of contents, text must be formatted in a Heading style such as Heading1 or Heading 2.

You can select a table of contents from a gallery of style options. To do so:

  1. Activate the References tab.
  2. Click Table of Contents.
  3. Select the desired style.

However, the thing that makes this impressive is not the fact that you can generate the table of contents. It is that you can then update the table at any time. If you decide to add a few pages of material to your document somewhere in the middle, instead of tediously going through and changing the page references on the table of contents, all you have to do is click on the Update Table button when you have selected the table of contents. It’s a serious timesaver. Try it some time!

Everybody Needs an Editor

I spend most of my professional time as a tech editor these days. I was writing a casual piece when someone I know online poked at me to point out an error in the piece after I had published it. I made a note to correct it and then went on with my day.

In discussing it with another friend, she commented, “Weren’t you offended that the person sent a correction? Or were you embarrassed that you posted something with an error?”

I just laughed it off because it was a casual conversation, but as I got to thinking about it, I thought it deserved a more serious answer. In reality, no, I was not offended. In that particular case, the person was correct. Neither was I embarrassed. Why should I be? It is a mistake to assume that editors necessarily apply professional editing skills to their own casual work. The piece in question was on a personal blog.

More than that, however, there is no writer or editor so good that they could not benefit from another’s editorial skills. It’s rather like the old saw about the lawyer who works for himself has a fool for a client. We all have blind spots, things we miss, or things that seem very clear to ourselves that may not be to a reader.

I put this out there because it is not too unusual for the newer writer to be offended when someone suggests edits to a piece. It is as if writing is a math problem they solved incorrectly rather than an art with, especially if you write in English, some confoundedly difficult rules to follow. There’s no need to be offended or hurt. The best writers in the world often praise their editors. They’re correct to do so.

Do you know the editor’s actual job?

It’s to make the author look utterly brilliant. The smart author knows this.

Mail Merge to Create Holiday Letters

The holidays are here and many people will want to send out letters bragging about outlining their year and letting friends and family know what they’ve been up to since the last letter.

MS Word has a perfect solution for that in Mail Merge.

For this to work well, you will need some source data. An Excel spreadsheet works perfectly well for this, but if you use Outlook to maintain your contacts, that can be a good thing to use as well. We’ll be running with Excel today because I feel like it J

The first thing you need to do is make sure you have a list in an Excel spreadsheet with the information you want saved.

Firstname Lastname Spouse Child1 Address City State Zip
Harry Potter Ginny James 12 Grimauld Place New York NY


Miles Flint Rhonda Emmaline 78 Armstrong St. Verona WI


Matt Delamer Niqui Joshua 1100 Prince Edward Street Fredericksburg VA


Samuel Vimes Sybil Sam 1 Scoone Avenue Los Angeles CA


After that, you’ll write your letter, making sure to have place markers where you want the information to go. As a place marker, I’ve put brackets around the text I am going to be turning into fields for the mail merge.

Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Rust

                            1 Treacle Mine Road

                            White River Junction, VT 05001

                            December 1, 2016

<Firstname> <Lastname>


<City>, <State> <Zip>

Dear <Firstname>,

Happy Holidays. I hope <Spouse> and <child1> are doing well.

This year has been a difficult one for me. My oldest daughter, Buffy, was accepted to Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Columbia University. It was such a stressful time trying to decide where to send her! Our son, Digby, won the Decathlon at the most recent Olympics, but only Ronald could be at the award ceremony because I, of course, had to be at Stephanie’s ceremony where she won the gold for the 100-meter Freestyle at the same time. It was cause for quite a bit of tension Chez Rust, I can tell you. Really, the Olympic committee ought to know better than to schedule conflicting events, don’t you think?

After this summer, we remodeled our house, and I have to admit that was a comfort. I’d had the same kitchen for a whole three years, and just needed an upgrade!

Ronald has been working on some mysterious project in the basement that he just won’t tell me about. We keep getting medical grade equipment – bone saws and grinders… I cannot imagine what he’s going to create, but I’m sure that next year’s letter will have some exciting news of a new invention.

Do keep in touch. We miss hearing from you!

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year,

After we have our text, it is time to start the Mail Merge.

  1. In the form letter, place the cursor where you want to insert the merge field.
  2. In the Write & Insert group, click Address Block to open the Insert Address Block dialog box. You’ll use this dialog box to insert the address merge fields.
  3. From the “Insert recipient’s name in this format list, select a format for the merge field. By default the company name and postal address are inserted along with the same field. You can also clear these setting, if you prefer.
  4. Click OK.
  5. In the Write & Insert Fields group, click Greeting Line to open the Insert Greeting Line dialog box.
  6. Select a greeting-line format and click OK.
  7. In the Write & Insert fields group, click Insert Merge field and choose the merge field you want to insert.

When you are done, you can click Preview Results.

The letter should look something like this:

If you like the way it looks, you can then click on Finish and Merge. This generates a new document, each letter on its own separate page. You can save that document, and even edit it, if you want to personalize particular letters to particular people. I don’t think it would be Poppy’s thing, of course. J

There’s No Substitute for Practice

When I teach classes in computer applications, there is occasionally an expectation that after a six-hour class, the student will have mastered all the material we’ve covered in the class.

I wish it worked that way, I really do.

But the problem comes in when the student takes the class and then never touches the application except to do the routine things that he’d originally done before spending all that time being exposed to new material. He forgets it. He has to forget it. There is no way he can retain it.

Practice is important. No, it’s more than important, it’s crucial to retaining the information.

Every computer application class I teach has independent practice exercises for each concept covered. The student is meant to go back to the home or office, then try out the new material and see how it works in the non-classroom environment.

The students that do well will do these provided exercises in a day or two, often emailing me for help with the sticky parts.

The students that genuinely develop mastery take it a step further. After playing with the provided exercises, they’ll start creating their own solutions relevant to their lives, their jobs and their interests.

As a teacher, of course I have to maintain mastery of the applications I teach. To do this, I come up with exercises or play with solutions, myself, that are relevant to my interests.

As a computer professional, I do tend to have geeky interests. My husband, alike in geekery, was noodling around on a discussion board when a complaint about a long-term science fiction program (Doctor Who) came up. The main character flies about in a time machine and picks up companions to travel with him from all over time and space. Someone complained that the companions were all from present-day (at the time of the episode airing) Earth, and that didn’t make sense.

I disagreed that the companions were all from present-day Earth, and immediately pulled up MS Excel to come up with some solid proof.

We made a list of the companions in one column; then populated the second column with a Y or an N to indicate whether or not they were from the present day. After that, I created a couple of named ranges for the columns.*

This groundwork made a COUNTIF function to find out how many companions were from present-day Earth a simple matter.

From Present Not From Present
24 18

The formula in cell D3 is =COUNTIF(Table1[PresentDay?], “Y”)

The formula in cell E3 is =COUNTIF(Table1[PresentDay?], “N”)

As a small addition to this little practice exercise, I created a little pie chart from my findings.

Is it in any way important where characters from a science fiction program hail? Of course not! But consistent, deliberate practice? That’s crucial and vital to mastery.

But there’s no reason that the practice can’t be a little fun and goofy!


* A named range is a meaningful name you can give to a cell or range of cells that you can then use in a formula or function. I’ll be posting how to create one in a future Nifty Tip.

Do You Have Office Hours?

Working from Home Means Freedom

Often the idea of working for oneself means freedom! If you get a wild hare to go shopping in the middle of the day, you can do it and finish up your work later in the day. You don’t have a boss breathing down your neck to get a report done. You don’t have to get up at six in the morning to commute to your job.

When I first started as a freelancer, certainly that freedom appealed to me.

In truth, yes, there is a lot of freedom that comes with being your own boss. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. But being your own boss is often a matter of self-management. That means you’ll need to decide on company policy.

For the longest time, I did not have specific office hours. As long as I was making a target income, I would work to the job, or work to get the job and not worry too much about it otherwise.

That caused several problems. I found myself never taking a full weekend or never feeling as if my time were really my own. Goofing off on the Internet (which I genuinely enjoy) started to merge with work time so that it was difficult for me to assess whether or not I was being genuinely productive at any given time. I hit my deadlines, so my clients were happy. I was always prepared to teach my classes, so the classes went well.

And that was great.

You Still Need Office Hours

But, it was easy to lie to myself, to be externally motivated by deadline and visions of happy clients rather than by my own goals.

My own office hours actually started as a way to ensure that I would not get telephone calls from clients at ungodly hours unexpectedly. I set a specific time when I could be contacted (and included the time zone!) so that if a client needed to talk to me outside that time, we’d arrange for a phone meeting. I like being available to my clients, but for random, off-the-cuff stuff, the office hours worked out better.

Then, I started attempting to analyze my productivity. Other than my accounting software, I really couldn’t. I work to the job rather than to the clock. How much of surfing the net was genuine research and how much of it was procrastinating and screwing around? What about personal projects that were falling by the wayside? What about value-added things I could do for my clients that I was not thinking about because I was too busy laughing at something on Youtube? Sure, sure, I was paying the bills. But was I really being effective?

Since the fluid work habits made it too hard to do an honest analysis, I actually set genuine work hours. I was allowed to work outside those hours if I wanted to (and I usually do), but I was not allowed to goof off within them. I even downloaded blocking software to keep me off sites that were not productive. While I would have been deeply annoyed if my boss had done this to me in a “Real Job”, I confess that as the boss, it sure does help keep focused on work during worktime.

Plug-ins to block time wasting sites

When Should You Have Office Hours?

I chose to make my work hours and my office hours slightly different. Knowing that I am most productive early in the morning, my work hours start long before I’m taking telephone calls from clients. I’m allowed to start goofing off slightly before I stop taking client calls, as well.

Doing this, I’m working smarter rather than harder. I’ve given myself a limited amount of time within which to accomplish my work for my clients, so there’s no use in fooling around. It needs to be done! But when it is done, instead of going off to play, I’m working on other projects that will be useful down the road – creating attractive cheat sheets for the computer classes I teach, working on writing projects that might not have an immediate benefit to my bank account, but in the long term might prove useful, thinking about new and better ways to market my work, thinking about new and better ways to be valuable to my clients. All of these things really are part of my job, even if I’m not directly getting a cash amount for it.

If you’re finding your freelance career stagnating, I encourage you to try office hours for a while and see what it does for you. There’s nothing like the recharge of knowing that you’ve put in a full day, that it’s legitimately done and goofing off with a clear conscience in your off-time. You’ll come back to your work recharged, excited and clearer-headed, ready to meet all the challenges and rewards of being self-employed.

How to Lock Their Sticky Fingers Out of Your Formatting

Do you ever collaborate on documents?

Do you ever find that when you do, someone with whom you collaborate does not know how to use Styles in Word?

It’s okay. I know the answer to this one. You totally do. It might even drive you up a wall when someone you’re collaborating with will force formatting instead of using Styles. If you’re using them extensively, this messes up everything from the seamless look of the document to logical text flow.

Did you know you can lock them out of that? Your collaborator, the brilliant writer, can then write the brilliant text without messing up the rest of the structure of the document. It’s awesome.

How to restrict formatting and styles in MS Word

Let’s take this somewhat out of date document – a guide to some new features in Office 2013. It makes extensive use of styles for both formatting and text flow. If you check to the right, you’ll see the navigation pane which shows the organization of the document in headings and subheadings. Text flow is also controlled by forcing a page break before certain types of headings. (See The Top Three Reasons to Use Styles When Formatting a Document for a little blurb on how to do that)

If I wanted to hand this document to someone else so they could contribute some material, I still would not want them messing with how the styles work in it. It drives the layout and look of the document.

So, I restrict formatting.

  1. Click on the Review tab and go to the Protect group.
  2. Click on Restrict Editing.

  3. The Restrict Editing task pane will appear on the right of your screen.

  4. Under Formatting Restrictions, click on Settings.

  5. From here you can restrict formatting changes to the styles you want the author to use. I strongly recommend using Recommended Minimum. Once you’ve made your choices, click OK.
  6. You will get a warning telling you that if styles are used for which you’ve blocked changes, they’ll be removed. Make sure you choose all the styles you use in your document! It will only activate, however, after you’ve clicked Yes.
  7. If you want to add editing restrictions such as Tracked Changes, you can choose that under Editing Restrictions.

  8. When you’re ready, just click on Yes, Start Enforcing Protection. You will get a notification to enter a password. DO NOT FORGET THIS PASSWORD. There is no way to recover it, and you might lock yourself out of something you don’t want to if you forget this password. When you have set a password that you will remember, click OK.

Now that you have your document protected, I want you to notice something on the Home ribbon:

See the Font and Paragraph groups? They’re ghosted – locked down. The only formatting that the writer can now add is in styles. No more Purple Comic Sans for that author! Yes, there is a style that’s equivalent to Bold. It’s called Strong. However, the use of styles versus font-based formatting brings up a point. If you’re going to do this, you need to educate your writers on what you did, why you did it, and then show them how they can accomplish what they want within Styles.

I mean, you’re working on documents, so like… Communication is a thing, right?

From Bullets to Smart Art: You can make an interesting presentation easy

Have you ever seen a presentation like this:

There are several problems with this presentation. The first is simply that the outline for the presentation is actually written on the slide. There are times when you should do this. For instance, if you intend the presentation to be viewed online without narration. Otherwise, not only is it dull, it will encourage the speaker to look at the presentation screen or the presenter’s computer rather than engage with the audience.

Sure, you can mix it up with a little animation, and it might be that you don’t want to go too crazy with the images. While understandable, there is a better way.

This is essentially the same “outline” as the first slide. While again, you’ve just about written your talk on your slides, it is still an improvement because the slide now is a bit more dynamic.

So, that took me all afternoon to create the text boxes, align the images, layer the images over a background image, and choose the color scheme, right?

No, I didn’t. I’m no graphic artist. What I used was SmartArt. It took me one minute to create that.

But how?

  1. Select the text you want to turn into SmartArt. Notice, in this case, I have a bulleted list that has indented information. So we have Level 1 information and Level 2 information. This will be important later on.

  2. On the Home tab in the Paragraph group, select Convert to Smart Art.

  3. You will be able to select a SmartArt style that will help convey your message graphically. If you are trying to drill down to a specific detail in a topic, a target might be a good idea. If you are speeding to a goal, an arrow works well. If you are trying to indicate interlocking dependencies, there is a gear option from More SmartArt Graphics. The important point, however, is that you choose something that will help put your audience’s mind in the direction of your presentation’s main goal.

  4. Once you have converted your text to SmartArt, two contextual tabs will appear – Design and Format. From the Design tab, you can choose a color scheme for your smart art, change the layout if you find you like something better, and even convert your SmartArt into an image for use somewhere else. On the Format tab, you can format individual shapes. Want the dark green text box to be purple with an orange outline, but leave the rest the way they are? Easily done in the Shape Styles group. I’m not going to outline all of the options, as the best way to learn SmartArt is to play with it.

However, there is one point about SmartArt I do want to draw your attention to. That’s the text pane. You’ll notice that on the left of the SmartArt box, there is a small arrow. If you click on that, it will display the text box.

The text box retains the bulleted text and the indentations that you originally wrote. Each level of the bullets will drive the appearance of the SmartArt. Sometimes, adding a bullet point will add a shape. Sometimes changing the indentation will change how the shape appears. This is something else I strongly encourage you to play with. It’s quite intuitive, and it might give you some ideas for your presentation.


Note: I used the Dividend theme straight out of the box from PowerPoint 2016.

Optimize for Mobile Devices: A Heartfelt Plea

I have a bone to pick with you web developers, business owners, and bloggers out there.  Many of you don’t have mobile-friendly sites.  Why is this?

Even back when I was living in the dark ages and was not using a mobile device myself, I understood that there were plenty of people around who were.  My sites all have a mobile version.  Granted, I’m running WordPress-powered blogs for the most part, so getting the plug-in wasn’t exactly hard or anything.  I did it because I know that when you’re bored, reading short pieces appropriate to a blog is a common way for the wired to entertain themselves.

Don’t think it’s just for blogging, though.  More and more, people will be using mobile devices to search for information as they’re going about their day.

Who Needs a Mobile-Friendly Site?

  • Restaurants

Every one of us has looked around, at our friends and voiced that time-honored phrase, “Where do you want to go for dinner?”  We don’t always ask this question in front of a computer or phone book.  Make sure that you have a mobile-friendly page that shows your location, hours open, menu and a general idea of prices.  It’ll make it more likely for your customers to pick you.

  • Bloggers

Yes, that theme you designed is very pretty.  Guess what? I can’t see it on a screen smaller than the palm of my hand, and I’m not visiting your site because it’s pretty.  If I read a blog regularly, it’s because I find what you have to say entertaining, informative, or more likely both!   Have a mobile version.  And if you’re worried about ad revenue, don’t.  On your mobile version, you can set it so that the ads show interspersed with the text or at the bottom of the screen.

  • Anyone that sells things over the Internet

Amazon has a mobile-friendly site.  Big department stores do, too.  If you sell products online, you really want your potential customers to be able to make an impulse purchase from their mobile phones.  You don’t have to spend a fortune on a site that’ll be friendly to your mobile customers,  and you want to be able to make it easy for them to make that impulse purchase.

Let’s assume you’re convinced.

What makes a website mobile-friendly?

  • Vertical Design

Mobile devices generally have a screen that is narrower than it is wide.   The user will be scrolling down a great deal to get to content.  Make sure the most useful content is right at the top – rather like going for page rank on Google.

  • Minimized clicks

Make sure that your user doesn’t have to click on too many internal links for the site to be useful.  However, resist the temptation to put all of the content on one page.

  • Minimized textual input

Typing on a mobile is a pain.  Make sure you’re not forcing your user to fill out too many forms.

  • Minimized Image Use

Think icons here.  Don’t integrate the image into the usefulness of the site!

  • Good Content organization

Make sure you sit down and draw out not only a generalized design, but make some flow charts about how your user is likely to navigate the site.  Test this with people who are not web developers until you can get a usage flow that makes sense and is fairly intuitive.

Remember that your main site, the one that people will be browsing on larger screens, can be considerably more elaborate.  What you want here is a version of the site built specifically for your mobile user.  If you’re considering a new website, make sure that you get a designer that understands these principles.


Why I Hate Tips and Tricks in Software Instruction

I’m about to play the hypocrite a little here.

A vast majority of my blog posts here on Figart Consulting are little nuggets of information about software. Why? Because it’s easy. I can write a 500-1000-word piece on some little bit of productivity software knowledge that might be useful to you. It might save you a half an hour when you’re trying to accomplish something.

And it’s still not really as useful as it could be.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s why I hate these little classes in software applications. You know the ones, “How to manage your Inbox” or “How to Make Pivot Tables in Excel.” I’ve taught classes like that. Shoot, I’ve written classes like that. I don’t like them.*

Why are they taught? For the same reason I write the articles. They’re easy – both for the teacher and the student.

What Tips ‘n Tricks Are Good For

It’s not that these little classes are unilaterally useless. They’re not. It’s that they’re truly only worthwhile to a peculiar subset of the population. The Gee, I Didn’t Know That! Nifty Tip is really only good for someone who knows the software in the first place. When I say “knows,” I do not mean someone who can look at the interface and puzzle it out. I don’t even mean someone who can make the software do a single task or figure out something.

When I say “knows,” I am speaking of someone who understands the underlying logic behind the software, and how its features might integrate to perform multiple complex tasks. The reality? Most people don’t know the software they use very well. (And if you argue that you shouldn’t have to understand its underlying logic to use it, I have to ask is your task truly complex enough to require software?)

If you do understand the software you’re using, yeah, those little tips and tricks will be quite useful. It’ll save you some time and you’ll be able to apply them in a useful way.

Where Tips ‘n Tricks Fall Down

I’ve taught a lot of classes in Excel. The class I want desperately to teach, and have never had the opportunity to do so, is the How to Design a Spreadsheet class. There are reasons for this. Not only is course development expensive, this is not conducive to the one-day training most employers prefer. For it to work well, I’d have to teach it more like a college class – several days over a course of many weeks – including homework and a project.

This comes from an hour on the phone doing tech support that was really turning into a development class when a user inherits a workbook that no longer works properly because changes need to be made in how data is tracked.

This comes from helping someone update a presentation using the tools available in PowerPoint, only to find that they do not know how to structure an effective talk.

This comes from re-formatting articles that cross my desk for editing purposes because the user doesn’t understand format and text flow in a document.

None of these problems can be fixed by Tips ‘n Tricks, but by understanding what the software is supposed to accomplish and understanding what task you’re trying to accomplish. Too much of what we do with computers really does have a flavor of, “Don’t bend that wrench, get a bigger hammer!”

Don’t get me wrong. I know why we don’t do it. Learning the principles behind anything is hard.

We Need to Teach Principles Based Productivity

Even though principles-based learning is hard at first, we need to teach it. The sad reality is that most people are taught to be able to do well on standardized tests. In the real world, though, you do not have standard problems to solve. I don’t care what your job happens to be, if it’s complex enough to sit down in front of a computer to it (and that includes being a cashier), you need to be able to analyze what you see in front of you, and plan not only a solution, but a way to avoid the problem in the future.

This means teaching people to sketch out what they want on a whiteboard before they sit down to create a spreadsheet. This means making an outline before starting a document. This means brainstorming a talk, maybe even writing an outline, before creating presentation slides.

To the computer professional, the expression, “Never skip the design phase” might be common. The thing is, that skill is necessary for more than just the programmers. You need to know where you are going. You need to know what you want to accomplish. You need to know what your tools can do. Without that, tips-n-tricks are pretty useless.

* This is not a secret to anyone who has asked me to write such a class, by the way. They’ve gotten this earful more than once.