The first Excel mistake everyone makes

Most people who want to produce an Excel spreadsheet make their first mistake when they fire up Excel.

So why is that a mistake and what should we be doing instead?

What we all do when creating a spreadsheet is to start up Excel, enter some row headings, enter some column headings, put in some data – real or sample – and then analyse the results with some calculations. This inevitably means the results or ‘answers’ will be far over to the right hand side of the sheet or way down at the bottom.

How many of your spreadsheets have the answers way down the sheet at some arbitrary row. And that always needs moving as soon as you add or remove data.

The best place for the answers is always at the top left hand corner of the sheet because that’s always the easiest place to get to. And you don’t need to keep on moving it.

I think creating a spreadsheet is a four step process.

Step 2 is switching on Excel and actually building the spreadsheet.

Step 1 is grabbing a pen and paper and sketching out a design for your spreadsheet. Take the time to decide what your output needs to look like and you’re far more likely to have a working and workable spreadsheet.

What questions are you answering? How are people going to use the information you’re collecting and analysing. Which bits of the data need to be the most visible? Always think about the output first.

And don’t feel you have to think (or act) conventionally because many of the reasons we do things the ‘usual’ way have more to do with pen and ink than modern day electronics.

Totals, and other statistics, often end up at the bottom of columns of numbers because that’s where they always appear, but the original reason for putting the total at the bottom has far more to do with adding up the way you did when you first went to school than any sort of conscious decision.

If you put the totals (and other summary statistics) at the top of the sheet, above the data, you can lock the first few rows on the screen using Freeze Panes so any changes to the data are immediately reflected in the summary statistics. You also get the added benefit that the answers are easy to find and you don’t have to keep on moving them every time you add some data.

If you do spend some time designing your spreadsheet before you start building it, you will definitely save yourself time, effort and aggravation in the long run.

And the two missing steps – that’s for another post!

Count using two conditions

How many hats in this list are red?

There are several ways in which this problem may be solved. The simplest is first to determine which of the rows in the table contain Red Hats. This is done using the logical function AND.

The AND function needs two or more parameters. In this case there are two questions to be answered. ‘Is the item a hat?’ and ‘Is the item Red?’.

For the first row, these translate into B3 = “HAT” and C3 = “RED”. Once again the text must be enclosed in quotes and the match is not case sensitive.

If all the criteria in the AND function are met, the function returns a TRUE value.

The calculation is then copied for each of the other rows in the table.

Any row containing a Red Hat will have a value of TRUE. To find the number of Red Hats, COUNTIF is used to count all entries with a value of TRUE.

TRUE need not be enclosed in speech marks as it is a logical value and not a text value.

Since the individual TRUE and FALSE values do not need to be seen, the answer can be moved to E14 and column D can be hidden.

Try it yourself using the examples below…

Download this example

Download all counting examples


Counting stuff in Excel

The COUNT function is used in Excel to find out how many items appear in a specific area of the worksheet.

Unfortunately for the unwary, COUNT only works for numbers. To get the most out of this family of functions, you need to know about COUNTA and COUNTIF as well

Try these short tutorials – the easiest one is at the top…

Count everything in an area
(How many entries have been completed?)

Only count specific items in an area
(How many of the items in this list are red?)

Count using two criteria
(How many hats in this list are red?)