Let’s use spreadsheets to rewire apps and make new ones

18.15, Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

How about an app with a spreadsheet under the hood?

Like, the experience would be this: you’re using your photos app or Zoom or expense filing SaaS tool, then you go to Settings and scroll aaaaall the way to the bottom, and tap a power user button that says “Open Spreadsheet.”

Then, magically, Google Sheets opens with all your data in it, and you can sort and query it in all the ways you couldn’t before, and change the titles of your expense claims with spreadsheet functions and that all gets reflected back into the app, or build a callout to an AI to describe all your photos and add natural language tags, do it yourself or ask a friend who knows Excel functions, or whatever really. Anything the app developers didn’t add because they’re building for the 80% use case, and you’re building just for you.

So that’s the idea.

Example #1. Where the spreadsheet is an alt UI for the app.

This is the pattern described by Geoffrey Litt and Daniel Jackson in their 2020 prototype, Wildcard.

In this paper, we present spreadsheet-driven customization, a technique that enables end users to customize software without doing any traditional programming. The idea is to augment an application’s UI with a spreadsheet that is synchronized with the application’s data. When the user manipulates the spreadsheet, the underlying data is modified and the changes are propagated to the UI, and vice versa.

You can see some videos at that link: Wildcard is a prototype browser extension and, visiting Airbnb, you can pop open a spreadsheet view and sort search results in ways not supported by the official site, run calculations etc.

(Litt wrote a long Twitter thread listing lesser known projects that also use spreadsheets.)

Example #2. Where the spreadsheet is a canvas to weave together new apps.

Fabian Stelzer recently made a Google Sheets template called HOLOSHEET that includes functions to call out to GPT-3 (text generation) and Stable Diffusion (image synthesis) to draft and visualise movies…

HOLOSHEET, story edition!

built a google sheet powered by GPT-3 and #stablediffusion that outputs full stories, with images!

you input a prompt & the AIs generate story, visuals and a title

in any style you want..

here’s “The wizard approached the abyss”

a few seconds later:

(There’s a series of screenshots at that link.)

So you might say The wizard approached the abyss and specify a fantasy style from the dropdown, then an embedded, parameterised GPT-3 prompt outlines the story in four scenes, with each scene then being sent to another AI for the illustration.

Side note: Stelzer isn’t a coder. To make the =GPT3() Google Sheets function, he asked GPT-3 itself to write the Javascript.

So both of these are examples of that old design movement Adaptive Design (2020) – end-user adaptation of products that metaphorically have the wires hanging out the back.

Like, sometimes: when you own a house, and not only does it allow for changing around the rooms and so on, but it has been architected so that there’s a blank wall and space on the plot for you to build an extension.

As with architecture, so software.

Adaptive Design in software allows for

  • End-user software customisation – which means that software that was semi-useful now becomes an intrinsic part of my personal “ecosystem”
  • A kind of distributed R&D – where the user community has the ability to find its own solutions, and (as a developer) you can look at what has been done and more in that direction.

(The second point came up in conversation recently. Yes sure it’s important to go and talk to users and co-create solutions. But why not give people the tools and knowledge to adapt the technology themselves and then pay attention to the power users?)

What’s neat about spreadsheets, and particularly neat about Google Sheets, is that:

  • they’re a Figma-like infinite canvas that people already understand, and programmable too with formulas that so many already use - extensible, expressive and accessible
  • Google Sheets is naturally multiplayer and collaborative, so it’s possible for people to share and work socially.

They’re an interesting vernacular, spreadsheets.

What should startups do?

In the early 2000s, user interfaces were being torn up and re-invented as work went online. The response was a fluid world of web APIs, remix culture, and - to frame that with theory - Adaptive Design.

(Anyone remember Yahoo! Pipes (RIP)? A universal canvas for remixing the web with native handling of APIs and RSS… a bigger loss than Google Reader, that one.)

I feel like we’re seeing this deconstruction/reconstruction again? With generative AIs, and new multiplayer ways of working and new tools for thought, there’s a growing participation in finding out what our new tools should be and how they should behave.

Maybe this time round, instead of APIs we could have Excel formulas? APIs never had that work surface to knit them together; formulas have that built-in.

I wonder what an app team could do to be really spreadsheet friendly? I wonder what the Google Sheets team could do?

And: back in the day there were API lifecycle/management startups (that then all got acquired). Will there be equivalent startups to publish/consume/manage the spreadsheet surface?

Yeah so we should do that.

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