DomainTermsViz: A Microsoft Excel add-on to reduce the error-proneness of spreadsheets

Friday, September 25, 2015

In the course of my PhD research work at the University of Eastern Finland School of Computing, I also developed a Microsoft Excel add-on, dubbed DomainTermsViz, whose purpose is to help spreadsheet creators to map easily application domain concepts to their spreadsheet-specific counterparts. The Microsoft Excel add-on translates traditional spreadsheet formulae into application domain concepts while also automatically highlighting all cells referenced in an active translated spreadsheet formula. All formula cells in a spreadsheet are also automatically marked with magenta right border markings. Just as any Microsoft Excel add-on, this add-on will alter the behaviour of normal Microsoft Excel. However, it is important that this change is done in a non-invasive way so that the environment should not be completely different from the traditional spreadsheet environment. This is to take advantage of existing user experience as familiarity with existing tools and techniques could become worthless if the add-on is too different from what spreadsheet creators know and how they are used to work. Moreover, spreadsheet users are known to be very conservative when it comes to adopting new features.

An illustration of the add-on in action: Formula in cell B9, which is =B4 +B5,  has automatically been translated to "Cash + Inventories" (Note also that cells B4 and B5 are also missing column names, otherwise the column names would have been included in the translation).

The add-on has the potential to be used in the following spreadsheet activities:
  1. When creating or editing a spreadsheet, the add-on can help one in tracking effected changes as active formula cell ranges are highlighted and a corresponding problem domain description is displayed for an active formula cell. This has potential in helping to create an error free spreadsheet as it will be providing an intuitive on-spot feedback to the spreadsheet developer on changes being done to the spreadsheet. This feedback can thus act as a verification aid hence introducing a non-invasive way of introducing some kind of spreadsheet testing to spreadsheet creators, who being non professional programmers are not interested in formal verification of their spreadsheets. As the adage says "prevention is better than cure", it is important to prevent errors from occurring in spreadsheets.
  2. The add-on may also be helpful in the comprehension of a spreadsheet created by others through visual comprehension aids such as highlighting all formulae in a spreadsheet and for each formula cell, a click on it will highlight its precedent cells (formula range) and a corresponding problem domain based description of the cell is given in the formula cell caption box.
  3. The add-on may also help in the comprehension of a spreadsheet as it can give a user a general overview of the structure of a spreadsheet through the magenta right border markings on all formula cells.
  4. The add-on may also be helpful in locating errors in a spreadsheet. For example, a problem domain description or narrative for a given formula cell, that does not match with what is expected in the problem domain could provide a visual cue for an error in that formula cell.

The Microsoft Excel add-on has been tested to run in Microsoft Excel 2003, Microsoft Excel 2007 and Microsoft Excel 2010. It can be downloaded freely at together with installation instructions. Note: Download the first add-on on the list! You may try the add-on and your feedback is most welcome.  


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