Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Usability Blooper: Microsoft Excel claims it can't find things when multiple cells are selected

This blooper has been annoying me for many years. I would have thought that Microsoft would have fixed it, since it is so obvious, but it has persisted from version to version. In the following it I am using Excel 2011 for Macintosh (any version).

Enter a spreadsheet such as the one shown below, and select more than one cell. I have selected 'Dog' and 'Cow' (two cells in total).


Then use any method of invoking the 'find' command to search for something outside the selection. For example, 'Cat'. Your search method could involve typing in the search box at the top, or using command-F to bring up the 'Find' dialog box.

No matter how you invoke the find command, the result is the following absurd modal dialogue:

What? Excel can't find it? The exact word is in an adjoining cell!

Of course, the experts among you will say: Excel searches only within the selection, when more than one cell is selected. But this is just not usable:
  • Beginners will not know this somewhat-arcane rule.
  • Users often invoke search when the selected cells are not visible (the user has scrolled the sheet) and  doesn't know how many cells are selected.
  • Even an expert might think that one cell is selected, and make a wrong decision when they see the error message.
  • The error message gives the user false assistance. It suggests re-typing. But the user will get the same response!
A more usable solution would be to:
  • Tell the user the response was not found in the selected cells, but that there is a result somewhere else (if there is) and ask if the user wants to search the entire sheet.
  • Not use a modal dialog in any case. The error message should appear non-modally without the user having to 'OK' it to proceed. The user should be free, for example, to immediately type some other search term, or execute any other command.

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