Using spreadsheets as databases is ubiquitous, often combined with functions to create applications that calculate salaries, forecast sales, manage production systems and track assets. But that kind of shadow IT is hard to manage and support, which is why organizations are increasingly shifting to low code options like the Microsoft Power Platform to replace spreadsheets that should really be an app.
Many spreadsheets are just clever lists made by users who may find the full power of Excel a bit more than they actually need. Plus, managing shared Excel files can be complex. You can collaborate with colleagues live in Excel very effectively, but it only works if you keep that Excel file in SharePoint Online or OneDrive. If you want to make sure someone updating your spreadsheet can’t accidentally delete a column when they’re trying to hide it, you need to take the time to lock cells and password protect the worksheet.
If you need to list and track information collaboratively, Microsoft Lists is designed to give you the kind of lists many people manage in Excel, with more list-specific options and less complexity. It’s ideal for managing events, onboarding employees, issue tracking, contact lists, scheduling content for your web site, handling travel requests and inventory management (Figure A).
Like OneDrive for Business, it’s SharePoint underneath (a SharePoint MySite using the sync technology from OneDrive through Project Nucleus) and you use it on the web or as a mobile app on iOS and Android.
Some of Lists feels very like Excel: Laying data out in rows and columns, formatting columns to show numbers, currency or text, using grid view to select and edit individual or multiple cells, and getting quick data visualizations with conditional formatting based on rules that highlight a cell or row.
You can color code updated items in green or use red to make sure you spot missed deadlines and payment dates. You can also flip the view to a calendar or make it look like a planning board organized into different categories, use Lists on your phone as if they were mini apps without the awkwardness of tapping in and out of spreadsheet cells, or build a Power App that turns the information in the list into an actual app.
Lists is part of Microsoft 365 and Office 365, and admins can make templates for the types of lists your company is most likely to need. As with Teams, there’s a personal version of Lists that you can sign into with a free Microsoft account. This is in limited public preview, has fewer features and you can’t yet use it with the iOS and Android apps. Even this individual version of Lists lets you add code to get slightly more sophisticated results.
The individual version of Lists is designed for both personal use and for small businesses who want to track information collaboratively with friends, family, suppliers and other groups who aren’t in the same organization without needing IT to help them get it right. It will get more powerful in time because it’s also built on SharePoint.
Lists has some clever features. Look at your list in calendar view, and any items that don’t have dates appear on the side so you know they’re incomplete. It has some frustrations too: You can pick multiple currency formats for number fields but all dates are in US format, the mobile apps let you view but not edit Lists offline and the new Android app doesn’t yet support tablets and foldable devices like Microsoft’s own Surface Duo.
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Expert users can do a lot more within Lists, like using JSON to format data. Developers can access the data in Lists through the Microsoft Graph APIs. They can even use Microsoft Access to query and update a list, so they can give users a friendly interface for entering and viewing that works in Teams, but then do bulk updates and reporting through another business app they developed years ago.
What does information collaboration look like in Microsoft Lists?
Microsoft Planner has boards for organizing tasks, and Microsoft To Do has lists for organizing tasks. Microsoft Lists isn’t a replacement for either of those, even though it sounds similar.
“Microsoft doesn’t view Lists as a task app like To Do or Planner or a calculation analysis app like Excel,” said Mark Kashman, senior product manager in the SharePoint team at Microsoft. “It is a part of the portfolio of broader collaborative work management: To track a lot of different types of information. One of the most important distinctions is the flexibility of Lists and its integration points with the Power Platform. You can configure forms and flows unique to Microsoft Lists, while To Do and Planner are oriented around helping track tasks for individuals or the team.”
That flexibility is about the different ways you can use Lists – from a simple custom checklist to the basis of a more sophisticated app (Figure B).
“For most users, Lists offers a no-code approach to tracking information to help visualize or organize using views, filters, formatting, rules for notifications and content collaboration with Lists plus Teams,” Kashman told us. “For those that need more flexibility, Lists offers a low-code approach within via JSON and integrations with the Power Platform.”
Lists is also different from the lists you’ll make in Teams or Outlook with the list components in Microsoft Loop, which let you make checklists and task lists as well as simple numbered to bulleted lists. The difference here is the kind of information Lists can store because of that SharePoint backend. Lists, Kashman noted “[can] easily handle multiple sets of information broken into thousands of pieces across however many people you work with.”
You can also view that information in different ways – Loop doesn’t let you customize that – and add rules to help you validate and use it: “Add your own business logic to notify users when information changes, create meaningful visuals and views of the data, and share it with others as you see fit,” said Kashman.
It might look like Microsoft has multiple apps to do the same thing, but each application offers different slices of the same work you’re doing, and no one tool would handle all these options without being as comprehensive and crowded as Excel or SharePoint.
To avoid that overload, Microsoft is trying to build out multiple, very specific apps that connect to the Microsoft Graph so you can use them collaboratively in all the different ways you might need to work.
“The goal is to streamline work management through a set of purpose-built apps that add structure to all the unseen pieces – tasks, status updates, documentation, and so on — that go into delivering quality business results,” said Kashman. “With a more efficient approach to the process of work, our customers have more time to collaborate on the work itself.”