Search Not Just Numbers

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Excel Tip: Converting numbers to text - retrospectively

No matter how much we think we know Excel, we still come across new things all of the time.

This is one a client showed me the other day - and it's a neat little trick!

How many times have you had a column of codes that Excel is reading as numbers and you need to be read as text (to work with a VLOOKUP or SUMIF for example)?

You can change the number format to text but this only partly solves the problem. It means any future numbers entered will be seen as text, but Excel only reads the existing codes as text once you have hit F2 and return on each one. I've found myself rattling down many a column like this in the past.

This little tip, however, means that I never have to do that again!

The approach involves using the Text to Columns feature that is designed for breaking text out into columns. The final step of the wizard, however, allows you to specify the format of each resulting column. This is how this tip works.

Simply follow the following steps:

  • Highlight the column of numbers;
  • Click Data, Text-to-Columns;
  • Select Delimited and click Next;
  • And Next again;
  • Select Text as the column data format;
  • Click Finish.
That's it - no more F2, Return, F2, Return, F2, Return, F2, Return, F2, Return.......

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Tuesday 18 March 2014

Excel Tip: Finding optimal solutions when the Excel Solver Add-In won't cut it

I've just got another short post for you this week, that's a follow-up to a post I wrote a few years' back.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post about Excel's Solver Add-In, which enables you to essentially reverse engineer an excel spreadsheet.

It allows you to take an existing spreadsheet, set a target for the result of the spreadsheet, and identify what inputs will achieve that target while satisfying any constraints you specify.

For more details on what the Solver Add-In does, take a look at the earlier post.

While working on a client's spreadsheet last week, I came across one of the Solver Add-In's biggest limitations - and here's how I got around it...

I was working on a spreadsheet to pick the optimum Fantasy Football team, and realised that I could have anything up to 500 players to choose from - meaning that there were 500 variables in the Solver model. It was at this point that I discovered that the Solver Add-In restricts the number of variables to 200!

Fortunately, after a little Googling, I found this:

OpenSolver for Excel
The Open Source Optimization Solver for Excel

This is a free Add-In for Excel, developed and maintained by Andrew Mason and students at the Engineering Science department, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

It works very similarly to the standard Solver Add-In, however, crucially, it does not have this artificial limit of 200 variables.

If you've never used the Solver Add-In, I would recommend that you take a look. If you have, but have a problem that requires over 200 variables, you could do worse than downloading OpenSolver.

Have fun!

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Tuesday 11 March 2014

Excel Tip: Using Data Validation to restrict entry of dates to within a particular range

Just a short post this week, as I have a pretty manic workload at the moment!

A few years ago, I did a post on using Data Validation to produce drop-down lists. However, Data Validation allows for many other ways to control the data entered and I thought I would cover one of those here - how to control the entry of dates to within a certain range.

To open the Data Validation window, select the range that you want to apply the validation to and click Data Validation on the Data ribbon (select Data Validation from the resulting drop-down).

From the "Allow" drop-down at the top of the window, select Date, choose what the operator from the next drop-down (there a number of options here such as greater than, less than, etc. but in most cases we will choose "between").

We then enter the earliest and latest dates that we wish to allow. e.g.

It would be good practice to enter these as cell references and to enter the dates in the cells, so that the range is clearly visible and can be edited by a user.

This will present the user with an error message if they try to enter a date outside of this range (or if they try to enter anything that isn't a valid date at all), and will not allow them to leave the cell without entering a valid date within the range.

As with all Data Validation, you can use the other two tabs to enter an Input Message that will appear when you click in the cell and/or create a custom Error Alert for when the data entered is invalid.

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Tuesday 4 March 2014

Excel Tip: Conditional Formatting based on other cells

Excel's conditional formatting feature typically allows you to set the format of a cell based upon its contents, and allows you to define all sorts of rules upon which to do this.

This is great, but what if you want the cell's format to be based upon the contents of a different cell (or cells)?

A typical use for this might be for a traffic light graphic giving a quick visual aid to understanding a set of numbers.

Fortunately Excel provides a relatively straight-forward way of doing this.

The answer is to use the formula option in Conditional Formatting.

Highlight the cell, or range of cells, that the conditional formatting is to be applied to.

Select Conditional Formatting from the Home ribbon and select "New rule". Then select the bottom option from the list - "Use a formula to determine which cells to format":

You can then type a formula into the box that will be used as the criteria to determine whether each cell is to be formatted, or not.

The criteria should start with an "=" sign and then follow the same rules as the condition argument of an IF function.

Where you are applying the conditional formatting to more than one cell, the criteria should be written from the perspective of the top left cell of the range being formatted. This becomes important in how it will treat relative cell references. Cell references can be made absolute using the dollar sign, as in a regular Excel function.

Once you are happy with your criteria, click the Format button and set the formatting that you want to apply should the criteria be met.

Some examples should make this a little clearer...

Let us take a simple one first. Say we wished to fill cell C3 with a red background, if cell A1 was negative.

We would click in cell C3 and open the dialog box as above. We then enter the following into the criteria box:


We then click the format button and select a red fill.

As we are only formatting one cell, it doesn't matter whether we use dollar signs or not.

Now, let's say we want the whole range C1:G10 to be coloured red if A1 is negative.

We would select the range C1:G10, and then do the same as before, however now we need to consider how we want cells other than the top left cell of the range to be treated.

In this case we want them to still look at the contents of A1 so we will need to fix the reference to A1 by adding the $ sign in front of both the row and column reference. Our criteria should therefore read:


If we didn't add the $ signs, then the criteria would be looking at a different cell each time.

C1 would be looking at A1 (as C1 is the top left cell in the range), however C2 would be looking at A2, D1 would be looking at B1 and D2 would be looking at B2, etc.

We may want the reference to be relative in other cases. Say we wanted to apply the conditional formatting to the same range, C1:G10, but this time wanted to fill the row (columns C to G) red when the contents of column A is negative.

We would do exactly as above but this time apply the dollars as follows:


We are still fixing the column but not the row, so now C1 will look at A1 (as before), and D1, E1, F1 and G1 will also look at A1 as we have fixed the column to always be A. However C2 to G2 will all look at A2 as the row reference is still relative.

The criteria you use can refer to more than one or a range of cells, so it could be any of the following:


Basically anything you could have entered as the criteria in an IF function (with an "=" sign in front of it).

You can also apply more than one rule to the same cell, so to apply our traffic light system, for example, we might have the following rules:

  • The ordinary format of the cell set to an amber (or orange fill) so that the fill is this colour if the other rules don't apply. You don't need Conditional Formatting for this;
  • New Rule =A1>=500  to give a fill of green
  • New Rule =A1<=-500 to give a fill of red

This will colour the cell red if A1 is less than or equal to -500, amber if it is greater than -500 but less than 500, and green if it is 500 or more.

There, you can now do pretty much anything with Conditional Formatting!

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