Smartsheet is a social tool with an image problem

Smartsheet is a really fascinating social tool, but because of its resemblance to a spreadsheet and the omission of some key user experience, the power and utility of the application may not be immediately evident, even to long-time users.

Smartsheet seems a lot like Google Drive’s spreadsheet. However, the data that is managed in smartsheets’ cells  and the visibility and access controls across the product is unlike what goes on in Google spreadsheets. For example, a Smartsheet can manage tasks, each of which which can be assigned to specific users. Start and end dates can be included, which can be displayed as Gantt charts or in calendar views. Here’s a template of a project with task dependencies, for example.



The view that is glaringly missing from Smartsheet is the activity stream, a collation of all recent activities in all smartsheets a user has access to. Without that — which is the dominant social metaphor nowadays — users will have to visit each smartsheet and inspect them to discover what has been updated.

Supporting Cooperative Work

Hidden in the visibility and access controls of Smartsheet is an interesting find. The design allows for a very rich sort of cooperative work. For example, I can create one smartsheet with 20 columns of data, some of which I want to share, and some I want to remain confidential. Smartsheet supports linking the values in one or more columns into columns in another smartsheet. So I could share the names and resumés of job candidates, for example, by linking to those columns into a shared spreadsheet, but not linking the column with salary history.

By extension, there can be a sprawling network of information managed in dozens, hundreds or thousands of smartsheets can be networked together, with information shared in a fragmented pattern, radiating outward, and being mixed with other local information. Consider something really distributed, like organizing the Olympics, where thousands of individual companies might be sharing core information managed by the Olympic organizing committee, like dates, locations, and core responsibilities, and then each organization could take that public data, and add their own personal information in secondary smartsheets, and share that in a dozen different ways with subcontractors and internal departments.

In such a system there is no master, centralized control: it’s a fully distributed but interconnected network of information intended to coordinate that activities of many, many people, but it works on a networked, pull basis. And those people can be very loosely connected: perhaps the smartsheet information is all that’s needed. Note that Smartsheet supports a version of its tool that integrates with Mechanical Turk for crowdsourcing small tasks, for example.

The tool has a very rich capability around form-based information capture, so users can create Smartsheet-based forms, post them externally, like on a website, and capture data as inputs to business activities. For example, job applicants could fill in a form with basic information, and submit a file attachment with a resumé. That information is captured in a smartsheet, and then cascade into an application review smartsheet with an evaluation checklist.

But the presentation of smartsheets — looking like standalone spreadsheets, and with the linkages and access information concealed in record and sheet-level metadata — conceals the latent power of this tool. So, I think Smartsheet needs to also create a presentation of the network of sheets. For example, if I have created a collection of 25 smartsheets with links between them, I would like to be able to visualize those connections, like a mindmap or an entity-relationship diagram. And perhaps even manipulate them in that view.

The Bottom Line

The dominance of the spreadsheet metaphor in Smartsheets is both a blessing and a curse. It makes it immediately understandable to people who may have been managing projects in spreadsheets, but it also conceals the tool’s hidden capabilities for cooperative work. Until the user experience is amped up to better support that, Smartsheet will be considered just a slightly more powerful spreadsheet, and that’s a shame.