Office: Choose the right application for the task at hand

Office includes a wide range of applications and many have similar functionality. Unless you use all of the applications on a regular basis, it can be difficult to determine which application you should use for your various projects. And if you don’t select the best application for your task it can be a struggle trying to use a tool that isn’t designed for what you want to accomplish. I’ve wasted hours of valuable time through the years making this mistake. I’d have to say the biggest struggle I encountered was using Excel to write letters. That was over 30 years ago when Excel for Mac was first released and I used it for everything! I know using Excel for writing letters sounds a bit ridiculous now, but Word wasn’t available on a Mac. My only other choice was a typewriter and I wasn’t the best typist. I decided Excel may take me longer, but at least my printed letters wouldn’t be covered in whiteout. Fast forward 30+ years and now there’s a broad range of applications to choose from. To get more familiar with each application, here’s an overview of the primary tasks for applications that are included in the various Office 365 subscriptions for both personal and business use.

TipTo view your installed Office applications, click File and then click Account. The available applications are listed under the Product Information section. If using a Mac, the available applications are Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook. Note that Outlook is not covered in this article.

  • Store, organize, and manage simple data or complex relational data.
  • Make your data available on your company network or in a web browser using Access Services, a component of SharePoint.
  • Create forms for data entry and reports to present your information.
  • Export data to other applications, such as Excel or Word, as well as other database formats.
  • Calculate and analyze numeric information such as budgets, income, expenses, loans, and scientific or statistical data.
  • Organize and track information, such as inventory, work schedules, projects, invoices, and address lists.
  • Summarize numeric and other data and display results in charts and PivotTables.
  • Create forms that include controls, such as check boxes, drop down lists, and option groups, to be filled in by other users.
  • Organize and keep track of your notes and other information in searchable notebooks.
  • Collect information from other Office applications or Internet Explorer.
  • Capture your notes in text, ink, drawings, images, audio, and video.
  • Insert pictures, tables, files, spreadsheets, or diagrams.
  • Collaborate in real-time with members of your team.
  • Access a notebook stored in the cloud, such as OneDrive, across multiple devices.
  • Create presentations for a sales pitch, conference, meeting, class, or demonstration.
  • Create photo albums to share with friends and family or for personal use.
  • Add multimedia such as graphics, video, and audio along with animations.
  • Present your presentation to a live audience, in an online meeting, or transform it into a video.
  • Create flyers, cards, calendars, brochures, certificates, catalogs, advertisements, and photo albums.
  • Include graphics, tables, and other visual elements.
  • Use built-in tools to save your publication for commercial or photo printing.
  • Create personalized publications for mass mailings for print and email distribution.
  • Create general documents such as letters, memos, reports, manuals, contracts, and proposals.
  • Create documents that contain graphics, such as newsletters, cards, flyers, invitations, and photo calendars.
  • Create advanced documents, such as mass mailings that can printed and mailed or sent by email, a book or report with a table of contents, indexes, and cross references.
  • Create forms that include controls such as check boxes, drop down lists, and date pickers, to be filled in by other users.
  • Generate other documents such as envelopes, labels, and blog posts.

While each application has tools for specific purposes, several of them have similar tools and overlapping functionality. For instance, you can use Word, Publisher, or PowerPoint to create documents that include graphics such as newsletters, flyers, or photo albums. You can create forms in Access, Excel, and Word. And you can use both Access and Excel to manage lists of information.

More often than not, you’ll likely choose the application you’re most comfortable with and forgo learning something new. Before you do, keep in mind that each application specializes in certain capabilities and can produce better results. Similar to a restaurant, if you go to one that specializes in seafood, you might see steak on the menu, but it may not be as good as a steak you get from a steak house. Also keep in mind that what you learn in one application can be applied to another, so the learning curve may be easier than you think.

Here are some tips to help you determine the right application for those applications that have overlapping functionality.

  • Graphics: Files that include graphics, such as pictures, charts, drawings, or illustrations, consider the type of content you want to include, the amount of text, and the complexity of the layout. If you don’t need to use cross references, fields, or other advanced text features, like a newsletter, then use Publisher. In Publisher, it’s easier to move your content, visually align objects, and you can add vertical and horizontal guides for precision placement. And unlike Word, your content won’t move unless you specifically move it, you can quickly duplicate pages, and use drag and drop to reorder pages. Publisher also has master page layouts that are similar to master layouts for PowerPoint slides. They enable you to maintain a precise layout and add fixed components on a page, such as a border or graphic accent.
  • Photo Albums: Think about your desired end result. If you want to display the album electronically on a computer or projection screen, use PowerPoint. It also enables you to include transitions and animations to add a professional polish. Plus, you can covert your presentation to a video you can publish on websites like YouTube. If you want to print your photo album or send it to a professional printer, use Publisher. It has a variety of photo borders to add a professional flair and tools to assist you with photo and commercial printing. If you don’t have Publisher then I recommend using PowerPoint rather than using Word. PowerPoint slides can be sized to any paper size and set to portrait orientation. And like Publisher, it’s easier to move your content, visually align objects, and add vertical and horizontal guides for precision placement. Whether you use PowerPoint or Publisher, I recommend starting with a Photo Album template instead of starting from scratch.
  • Lists of Data: For simple lists of data, such as inventory or a mailing list, consider using Excel. It has tools for sorting, filtering, and managing your lists. Plus, if you find you need more database management tools, you can easily import your list in Access. For more complex data, such as multiple lists of related data that tracks employees, projects, or department inventory, use Access. It has tools for working with information that’s related to each other and enables you to display and report information in various views. For example, you can create an employee directory sorted alphabetically and another that’s grouped and sorted by department. If you’ve never used Access you might be surprised by how easy it is to get started these days. Several years ago you had to start from scratch but now, like the other Office applications, there are a variety of database templates to choose from.
  • Forms: If you want the data entered in a form to be automatically collected, use Access. However, in order for other users to fill in an Access form they either need to have the Access application installed or your organization needs Access Services, which is a component of SharePoint. This will enable you to create web browser-based forms that can be hosted on your internal intranet or on a web site for public use. Other form considerations are whether the form contains calculations. If you don’t need to automatically collect your data then use Excel. While Word supports calculations, creating formulas in Excel is easier and more reliable. However, if your form needs to contain specific types of fields, such as check boxes, drop down lists, date selector, etc., then create your form in Word. If you’re not familiar with the Developer tab in Word, it has a set of controls that are designed for creating forms. Note that the form controls aren’t identical in the Windows and Mac versions of Word as the Windows version also has Content Controls. While they can only be added in Windows versions, most Content Control types are compatible with Word for Mac. Additionally, if your form is a structured form then use a borderless table (a table with the border formatting removed) for your form layout.

See Word: Adding Structure to Documents for more on borderless Word tables.

TipIf you don’t see the Developer tab in the ribbon, if using Windows, click File/Options, and then click Customize Ribbon. The available ribbon tabs are listed on the right side of the dialog box. Select Developer and then click OK. If using Office for Mac prior to Office 2016, on the Word menu, click Preferences, and then click View. Near the bottom of the View options select Show developer tab and then click OK. The Developer tab will display on the ribbon to the right of the View tab.

The above list is certainly not an exhaustive list of all of the different types of files you will create or tasks you’ll preform in your various projects. However, it should be enough to give you a good start in choosing the right application instead of struggling with a tool that wasn’t designed for what you want to accomplish.

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