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Supercharging Spreadsheet workflows with Layer

Layer, 2021 - 22

Why solve spreadsheet collaboration? Google already did it.

Gsheets is Google's way of solving spreadsheet collaboration. To do that, Google built a real-time collaboration environment, where everyone can edit your (master)sheet at the same time and the changes are reflected in the master sheet immediately.
There is still no way for Spreadsheet Owners to assign deliverables to their collaborators. They still have to chase them on email or slack.
You can't share granular data ranges from your sheet or hide sensitive data. Spreadsheet owners can't review the changes being made to the master file. They can only look back at the version history and try to figure out who changed what.
Layer's founders imagined a better way of collaborating on spreadsheets, where the spreadsheet owners have full control over what they share and what changes they accept. They should be able to assign data requests to collaborators and not have to chase them via other channels. And so, they set out to build Layer.

What is Layer

A new way to collaborate on spreadsheets, where spreadsheet owners have full control over the changes made.
  • Granular sharing - Spreadsheet owners can share parts of a spreadsheet via Excel or Google Sheets. In case they have some sensitive data in their sheet, they can hide it from their collaborators.
  • Review and approve changes - Sheet owners can review each and every change made by their collaborators to the shared data. They can accept all or partial changes, or reject the submission. This adds an extra layer of auditing before merging with the main spreadsheet and avoiding human error.
  • Automate and schedule - Layer lets you schedule recurring data consolidation and distribution tasks, giving you more time to focus on more important tasks.
  • Talk to your team - Sheet owners can send feedback to the collaborators on the changes made. Sheet owners can also chat with each other.

How it works

Meet Anna! She's the CFO of a 250 employee company. Among her primary responsibilities is running these processes on Google Sheets:

[  ] Quarterly Budgeting
[  ] Cost Forecasting
[  ] Monthly Top-Line
[  ] Investor Reporting

  • She needs to gather data from different sources. Some data is available in tools (e.g. accounting data), and other data needs to be collected from colleagues (e.g. marketing assumptions).
  • It is imperative that her files don’t break or contain inaccurate data. On top of that, most planning, forecasting, or reporting processes follow a strict timeline, and it is important to meet deadlines.
  • She wants to make her life easier as a CFO and to spend more time on what matters most — shaping and making decisions based on solid data and models.

Problems Discovered

At Layer, the Product Owners and designers were in close contact with the early customers and we constantly interviewed them to understand about their experience and frustrations with the product.

The problems listed below were a recurring theme in these meetings with the customers.
  • Too many flows - This was a symptom of two underlying problems -
    - There was no way for sheet owner to push changes from Master sheet to a shared flow, without sharing again, thus creating a new Flow.
    - Recurring requests would share the sheet again with the collaborators, thus creating a new Flow.
  • Conversation breaks: Every time, the file owner pushed changes from the Master file or a data request repeated, a new Flow would get created and the conversation history of the previous Flow was lost.
  • Version History breaks: The same problem persisted with Version History. With every new Flow, the Version History would start from scratch.

Our Vision

We wanted to build a collaborative space for the spreadsheet owner and their collaborators where -
- they always have access to the latest data.
- they can push and pull data from the Master Sheet.
- spreadsheet owner has complete control over the changes made to the data.
- they have access to the entire Version History and Activity/Conversation.
- recurring data requests can be assigned to the collaborators in the same space.

We called this space a Continuous Flow - to signify a perpetual space where the data flows in and out continuously.

Initial Ideas

The team got together and we started articulating the Anatomy of a Flow - we wanted to visualise the components of a collaborative workspace built on top of a shared spreadsheet.

We also quickly mocked and validated different ideas like "what if the spreadhseet owner is able to start sharing by just selecting a cell-range in the Master File".

Or - "what if the spreadhseet owner is able to assign tasks by tagging the collaborators in the chat itself..."

The Outcome

A Continuous Flow is a collaborative workspace built on top of a shared spreadsheet. Single or multiple collaborators can be added to a Flow.

We de-coupled sharing of spreadsheet in a flow from the scheduling of data requests. Now, Flow creation just means sharing a spreadsheet with single or multiple collaborators.

Once the collaborators are invited to a Flow, Tasks can be assigned to them.


Tasks, as the name suggests, are instructions tied to a due date. Tasks are assigned once a spreadsheet is shared with collaborators. Spreadsheet owner can schedule future Tasks and set recurring Tasks.

This is where the impact lies - The Tasks repeat inside the same Flow. New Flow isn't created every time.

Data Freshness

We designed a mechanism to notify spreadsheet owners if the data a shared spreadsheet was outdated compared to the Master Spreadsheet, and a way for them to push the updates to the shared spreadsheet at the click of a button.

On click, the shared spreadsheet is updated with the latest data from the Master Spreadsheet and Spreadsheet owner doesn't need to share the spreadsheet again, thus no need to create a new flow.

Design System

All the while woking on this project, I and the other designers on the team were constantly contributing to a robust design system. All the newly created components and assets were standardised and documented.


By restructuring the sharing of spreadsheets and by introducing Tasks, we were able to build a perpetual workspace for people to collaborate on spreadsheets while giving complete control to the spreadsheet owner.

We solved the problem of too-many-flows by introducing Tasks on top of Flows and designing ways to share changes from the master sheet.

This was just a glimpse of the entire design process. Since we shipped this update, the product and the company has gone through many changes. If you would like to learn more about it in detail, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you for reading!