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Excel Dropdowns Done Right: Data Validation and Named Ranges

Published by Tim Wilson on May 10, 2011 All posts from Tim Wilson

Every once in a very rare while, I find myself not motivated to expound upon deep and meaningful subjects. So, this post is not about the latest turn in world of privacy legislation, it’s not about my deepening fascination with two-tiered segmentation, it’s not about the perplexing and depressing indefinite postponement of Demystified Days, and it’s not even about pondering when Team Evil Forces will have a web site.

Nope. Not today. This is just a good ol’, “Hey, let’s look at a handy capability of Excel…and how to use it to the best of its ability.”

This came up last week when a co-worker asked me: “How do I get dropdowns working in cells in Excel?” She knew she had done it before, but she couldn’t remember how. In the course of showing her, I realized that, therein, was one of those handy little tips worth sharing. I’m going to walk through three different ways to accomplish this:

  • The totally common, mundane way — straightforward, but it has limitations
  • The way I always do it — almost no more effort to implement than the first way…but with fewer limitations
  • The way I may start doing it (sometimes), which would make the approach just that much slicker

Bounce around as you see fit!

The Scenario

You’re using Excel to enter a table of data, where one or more of the columns have a standard set of possible values. For instance, let’s say you’ve made a list of household chores, and you use that list to both assign a priority to each task as well as to note the status of the work:

For both the Priority and the Status column, you’d like to enter the values using a dropdown menu, rather than needing to retype a value in each cell:

The wrinkle is that you expect this list to live for a while, and there’s a good chance that you may want to have other values available for either the Priority or the Status columns (or both). We’ll get to that.

The Standard Excel Way — Data Validation

The quickest way to set this up is with basic data validation:

  1. Highlight all of the cells that will use the same dropdown values
  2. Select Data » Data Tools » Data Validation
  3. Change the Allow dropdown to List
  4. Enter the values in the Source box (separating different values using commas)
  5. Click OK
  6. Repeat for each set of cells that has a unique set of dropdown value options.

That’s all there is to it, and it works.

The Limitation: Suppose that you decided you wanted to add a new value to the list of options, and that, rather than four cells right next to each other, this same data validation rule was used across numerous non-contiguous cells, even cells across multiple worksheets. Going in and updating the available list of values is a real pain. That brings us to…

My Standard Way — Data Validation with a Named Range

I regularly use dropdowns to make Excel-based reports more dynamic — enabling the user to choose whether he wants to see a weekly or a monthly version of the report, as well as to select the specific date range (this isn’t so much for the user’s benefit as it is for mine — it means I don’t make a “new report” each week or month, but, rather, update the data in the same workbook and then update the dropdown to get the current report; read more about my approach for that in this post).

I have a standard way of generating dropdowns that gets around the limitation described earlier: rather than entering the list of values directly in the data validation dialog box, I reference a named range. Using the same household chores scenario, I would accomplish the same end result, sans limitation, as follows:

  1. Add a new worksheet (I usually name it something like “Lookups” and then hide the worksheet once everything is set up so it’s never something that the user sees)
  2. Enter the lists of values at the top of that sheet — one list per column
  3. Select all of the values for one set of dropdown options and enter a name for that range (in this case, “List_Priority”)
  4. Repeat this  for the other list of values (I named it “List_Status” — I like to prepend the names of similar types of named ranges so that they group easily in the Named Ranges dialog box)
  5. Now, it’s the same basic process as described earlier, except, rather than entering the specific values in the data validation Source field, you enter a named range (note the “=” before the named range!):
  6. Click OK, and you’re good to go again!

Now, if you ever want to update values in the list, you can edit the values on the Lookups sheet. This won’t update the cell values that have already been populated — just the available values in the dropdown anywhere that named range is used.

The Limitation: even this approach has a limitation, but it has a couple of workarounds. Let’s say you decide to add a value to one of your lists — say you want to add “Unknown” as an option for Priority. If you simply type it at the bottom of the list, it falls outside of the named range and won’t be reflected in your dropdowns. Two different ways to work around this:

  • After adding the value, edit the named range (Formulas » Defined Names » Name Manager) to include the additional cell
  • Before adding the value, select the bottom value in the current list, right-click, and select Insert » Shift cells down » OK.This will have effectively expanded the named range by a cell. You can then either add the new value in the blank cell or copy and paste the “bottom” value (“Low” in this case) into the blank cell and then enter the new value into the bottom cell

Both of these approaches are a little bit clunky, so let’s add a twist to make the named ranges a bit more elegant…

Data Validation with Named Ranges with a Clever Twist

[Update: See the first comment below -- from Julien. As he notes, the formula described here is a little messy, and he proposes a cleaner solution. I'm leaving my original approach here to provide a "multiple ways to skin a cat" demonstration...but I expect I'll be using the approach described in the comment.]

This is simply a couple of additional steps beyond the steps described in the previous section to make the named ranges a little smarter:

  1. Select Formulas » Defined Names » Name Manager
  2. Select List_Priority and click Edit to see the current definition
  3. Replace the Refers to: formula with the following formula:

=OFFSET(Lookups!$A$2,0,0,COUNTA(Lookups!$A:$A)-1)

And, voila! You can now go nuts with adding and removing values from the Priority list and the dropdowns will have updated values with no additional effort!

To do the same for the List_Status named range, the formula you would use for the named range would be:

=OFFSET(Lookups!$B$2,0,0,COUNTA(Lookups!$B:$B)-1)

To break down the OFFSET formula usage (using List_Priority as the example):

  • Lookups!$A$2: start at cell $A$2, which is the first value in the list
  • 0: stay in that same row (so still at $A$2)
  • 0: stay in that same column (so, again, still at $A$2)
  • COUNTA(Lookups$A:$A)-1: count the number of cells in column A that have values and then subtract 1 (the heading cell: “Priority”); grab an area that is that tall, starting with the cell currently “selected” ($A$2)

By checking Excel’s documentation on the OFFSET function and fiddling around a little bit with the formula, you can see how it’s working pretty easily.

Is It Worth the Effort?

I always use the second option described in this post. You just never know when a hastily hacked together spreadsheet will get “legs” and start growing and expanding its footprint. Better to spend an extra 10 seconds to add flexibility and maintainability.

Will I use the third option? I might. We’ll see. It didn’t occur to me that I should even try until I showed my co-worker the second option…and then watched her immediately get tripped up trying to add a new value to the list. If I’m handing off a document where flexibility in the dropdown values is needed, I might just Google my way back to this post to see how it’s done!

 

Categorized under Excel

  • Julien

    I doubt I’ll always remember the formula for your 3rd option.

    So what I usually do is:
    - set a tab for all the dropdown values
    - in column A, for instance, give the name for the list, like tasks
    - in column B, give the values for the list, just as you did, but without the header in the first row
    - select the whole column B and define a named range
    - use that name range in data validation, just like you did.

    Excal automatically removes the empty values from the name range and I just have to append my next value to the list.

    Hope this helps …

  • http://www.gilliganondata.com Tim Wilson

    Thanks, Julien! That is a cleaner approach for the 3rd option!

  • Matt

    Julien’s option may be cleaner in terms of adding future values, but it’s far less elegant if your name range is needed in other parts of your workbook. Moreover, you’ll need to add two columns for each dropdown / named range required.

  • http://www.gilliganondata.com Tim Wilson

    @Matt I’m not sure I understand the “if your named range is needed in other parts of your workbook” comment. As long as the range is set up to work for the whole workbook, I don’t think it’s any different than the third option I proposed, is it?

    As for the two columns requirement, that crossed my mind as a minor downside. However, one of the columns is solely for labeling purposes. If there were a lot of named ranges being created, I could see using just Column A and listing out, in order, what each of the named ranges are for reference. OR, even use a naming convention in the Name Manager that covers that.

    What these comments show, I think, is that there are multiple ways to skin this particular cat. I wish more Excel users realized that it was a cat worth skinning!

  • Elizabeth

    Much easier to type the wanted list, set it up as a table and then name the range. When you add a value at the bottom of the table the named range automatically stretches to include to the new value!

  • http://tunwinnaing.wordpress.com Tun Win Naing

    @Julien, ‘Excal automatically removes the empty values from the name range and I just have to append my next value to the list’

    Which Excel version you use? I’m using 2007 and blanks are showing up in the drop down list.

    @Tim Wilson, excel shows ‘you cannot use references to other worksheets or workbooks for data validation criteria’. Is this happening to you?

  • http://www.gilliganondata.com Tim Wilson

    @Tun Win Naing: I’ll need to track down a machine with Excel 2007 to confirm. Julien’s tip works great on 2010. As for the “you cannot use references…” are you having that happen with globally-defined name ranges as your reference for data validation? I’ve run into that issue in the past in some situations, but having a named range that is defined for the entire workbook has always worked fine.

  • http://tunwinnaing.wordpress.com Tun Win Naing

    Thanks @Tim Wilson, ‘you cannot use reference’ has been resolved now.

  • Ryan

    Sir, nicely posted. You said “I have an approach that updates cell values too, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.” Tim, I must have this method. Scope me in. It’s like one of those 3d photos that suddenly focus but I haven’t reached the suddenly focused part. Anyways, please share your method. As mentioned previously, I must have it.

  • http://www.severnunival.com Alex Lush

    Good post sir.

    I know this is nearly a year old but can anyone comment on the ability (or not) to use Tables instead of named ranges. Tables would be an obvious choice (for Excel 2007+ users) as they dynamically expand as you add new items (no need for the OFFSET formula), however the data validation screen does not seem to accept a table range as a list source (unless anyone can correct me on this).

    The workaround to allow use of tables is to create the table, then create a named range to point to the table range, then link to the named range!! This means your range does dynamically expand but the downside is you have to manually create a named range AS WELL AS the table!!

  • http://www.gilliganondata.com Tim Wilson

    @Alex Brilliant! Honestly, I only really discovered Excel tables in the last 9 months or so. I tried referencing a table directly from data validation, and you’re right, it doesn’t work. BUT, on a hunch, I then tried putting the table name inside of an INDIRECT function, and it did! So, if I created a table and left the default name as Table1, I then put the data validation formula as:

    =INDIRECT(“Table1″)

    It appears to work!

    Thanks for the comment — this post now needs to be dramatically shortened and rewritten!

  • Pingback: Excel Tables — Overlooked, Yet Awesome | Gilligan on Data by Tim Wilson

  • Francisco Flores

    Hi Tim,
    Would you be able to help me?
    I can provide a copy of the sheet I am working on if you need to see it.
    But I am trying to have the user select/type a style number and it will automatically list all similar entries that match the first characters as the user type them in. When done,
    the rest of the row will automatically be filled in with data pertinent to the selection.
    The problem exist because there are several color for one style, so after the user select the style, how would I be able to have the user select the color from the “Color” column using a drop down list just showing only the color for the style selected?
    Please advise

    • http://www.gilliganondata.com Tim Wilson

      Francisco – this sounds like something that some lookup tables could be used to make work. I’ll follow up with you via email to get an example document and see what we can do.

  • http://brisrocket.wordpress.com Andrew Newey

    Thanks Tim. Spending a little more time to make things more robust and scaleable is a good approach. Thanks for the article – good advice mate.

  • http://mpptree.blogspot.com/ Michael Pierce

    Tim – I definitely prefer the table approach, I’d just recommend using the column name in the INDIRECT() formula, rather than letting it default to the first column. That way, you can use values other than what’s in the first column. For example =INDIRECT(“Table1[Priority") versus =INDIRECT("Table1[Status]“).

  • http://www.goodcacao.com Edie

    Hello all-

    Quick question… I am working in a Workbook with a dynamically named range and am looking to use that named range in another sheet within the workbook. I tried the “Table” functionality, also something I am not familiar with, and got nothing, since I can’t use the table name in the Data Validation– even when I tried “Indirect” as a modifier.

    My problem: Data validation is not allowing my named range! Here is the OFFSET function I have as the source of the named range–> “=OFFSET(‘Ingredient List’!$A$1,1,0,COUNTA(‘Ingredient List’!$A:$A)-1,1)”. Its name is “Ingredients.”

    But Data validation won’t allow “Ingredients” as a source, because it says “The List Souce must me a delimited list, or a reference to single row or column.”

    Any ideas/workarounds/solutions? Appreciate your assistance.

    Just FYI- I am working in Excel for Mac 2011.

  • http://www.goodcacao.com Edie

    Hello all-

    Quick question… I am working in a Workbook with a dynamically named range and am looking to use that named range in another sheet within the workbook. I tried the “Table” functionality, also something I am not familiar with, and got nothing, since I can’t use the table name in the Data Validation– even when I tried “Indirect” as a modifier.

    My problem: Data validation is not allowing my named range! Here is the OFFSET function I have as the source of the named range–> “=OFFSET(‘Ingredient List’!$A$1,1,0,COUNTA(‘Ingredient List’!$A:$A)-1,1)”. Its name is “Ingredients.”

    But Data validation won’t allow “Ingredients” as a source, because it says “The List Source must me a delimited list, or a reference to single row or column.”

    Any ideas/workarounds/solutions? Appreciate your assistance.

    Just FYI- I am working in Excel for Mac 2011.

  • http://www.gilliganondata.com Tim Wilson

    Hi Edie,

    It may be that Excel for Mac is causing the issue — I’ve definitely run into issues with the Mac version of Excel when it comes to tables (and pivot tables) in the past.

  • http://borekb.cz/ Borek Bernard

    Hi, I would be interested in your approach to renaming values in the list so that the already entered values auto-update themselves. I am trying to figure it out and macros really seem like the only option at the moment.

    Thanks for a nice article BTW!
    Borek

  • P. K.

    FYI – your recommended method utilising named ranges has one significant draw-back. It breaks the point of data validation in that Excel will no longer prevent input that is outside the named range. Essentially defeating almost the entire purpose of the exercise.

    • jwk

      The way I understand your statement, it is false. Excel will prevent input that is not in the (dynamic) named range. The named range expands to include a range of values that presumably is explicitly entered to be used as validation.

      • P. K.

        You’re wrong according to Microsoft Excel 2010. When using named ranges, Excel (for whatever reason), no longer prevents the user from imputing whatever they want whether it’s in the named range as specified by the validation rule or not. I’d almost classify it as a bug to be honest or at least an oversight by MS programmers. However if using simple formula e.g. “$A$1:$A$1000″, Excel will then enforce the validation rule thus only allowing the user to input what is specified within the aforementioned range.

    • http://tim.webanalyticsdemystified.com/ Tim Wilson

      That’s a good point. I primarily use data validation not for actual validation but, rather, to have in-cell dropdowns to enable the user to select from a list of values.

      Thanks for calling that out!

  • Daniel Boles

    “Let’s say you decide to add a value to one of your lists — say you want to add “Unknown” as an option for Priority.
    If you simply type it at the bottom of the list, it falls outside of
    the named range and won’t be reflected in your dropdowns. Two different
    ways to work around this:”

    Bro, do you even Excel?

    This scenario of unnoticed expansion of ranges arises often and is simply solved as follows.

    The easy, functional, and plainly logical way to work around this is to store the list of choices in a column of an Excel Table and to link the Named Range to that column – by name, not cell numbers or anything like that. When the table expands, the Named Range automatically reflects the expansion, and thus the list for Data Validation will now offer the new options from the column.

  • McKay Savage

    The very cleanest way is to create a named table of your data (rather than using named ranges) because this gets updated differently than ranges. The trick is that structured references of tables is not possible in the list validation formulas (why, who knows). The way around this is to create a name (File menu Insert:Name:Define…) of the structured reference you require. And presto, clean validation referring to a data table that will automatically adjust is reference as new data is added.

    So using your example if you name the whole table ValidationData

    then the structured reference for the priority column is:
    =ValidationData[Priority]
    Define a new name ‘ValidationPriority’ with the formula above
    The formula for the validation is then simply:
    =ValidationPriority
    And presto! It’ll refer to whatever data is is column A

    Here is where I learned this: http://superuser.com/questions/235999/putting-table-name-as-a-reference-for-the-purpose-of-cell-values-validation

    • Mark Glotzbach

      Thank you for that advice. I was using the tables to manage input data as I like the dynamic nature of the table and structured references, however I couldn’t figure out why Data Validation wouldn’t work. The extra level of indirection saved me. I wouldn’t have figured it out on my own. Thanks again.

    • Howard Payne

      Good tip…

      A while back I came across this:

      =INDIRECT(“TableName[ColumnName]“)

      …for the Data Validation List Source…(replace tablename and columnname with your table and column and notice the left and right brackets surrounding the column name all in quotes…)

      It works!

      I’m not sure how it differs from creating a Defined Name…that is, are there maintenance, performance, etc issues…

  • Darren Bartrup-Cook

    I used to use the OFFSET method, but found that this function is Volatile – meaning it recalculates any time anything needs recalculating on the spreadsheet. A better method is to use the INDEX function: =Lookups!$A$2:INDEX(Lookups!$A:$A,COUNTA(Lookups!$A:$A)) is the non-volatile version of the OFFSET formula above.

    • Tim Wilson

      That’s an interesting point, and something I wasn’t aware of. Are you saying that, similar to using SUMIFs when a pivot table would do, overuse of OFFSET can bog down the spreadsheet performance?

 


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