I ask myself, is it better for users to use a generic grid with letters as column labels instead of numbers ?

Excel, OpenOffice and Google Spreadsheet do it by default but I'm often confuse. I have difficulties between letters and numbers analogy. For exemple I can't tell without reflection if my 40th column is the 'AM', the 'AN', the 'AO', ect.

Can you tell me why they choose this classification ? Is it a good choice for UX ?


One advantage of using letters for columns is that it makes it easy to refer cells, rows and columns. If you refer in Excel to A12, it's very clear that you mean "Column A, Row 12". If both rows and columns used numbers, you couldn't write it that shortly - 112 can be "Column 1, Row 12" or it could be "Column 11, Row 2". So you have to separate them - 1-12. But now, which one is the row and which is the column? You need to either have a convention that will ofter confuse people, or make the reference format specify which is which(Microsoft utilize this in their R1C1 format - where A12 would be written as R12C1).

It also makes it easier to refer to whole rows(1:3) or whole columns(A:C) without having to specify if you want rows or columns.

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As a background, this way of column/row labelling (or cell referencing) is called the A1 referencing style. It uses one or two letters on refer to a column (up to 256 columns) and a number (from 1 to 65536) to refer to a row.

Another cell referencing style in spreadsheets is the R1C1 style. This style uses numbers to refer to both columns and rows. It starts with the letter R, followed by a row number, then the letter C followed by a column number.

That being said, do users recognize their columns by number, or by the data they contain? do you really care that your "Total Monthly Expenses" column (for ex.) is number 40, or AN?

I think in most cases, if you wanted to reference a column, you would look for the human-readable header ("Total Monthly Expenses") that you gave to that column, then copy/use it's spreadsheet reference whether it was a number or letter. Whether you use letter vs. numbers won't impact the findability of your columns in that case.

If, however, column numbers were crucial in referring and finding columns, then I would consider the R1C1 style mentioned above.

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