AI is a big thing right now – does Squirrel need it?

by | Oct 13, 2023

There’s no denying it – AI is a big thing right now! Looking on LinkedIn, Medium or other online publication sites, you see posts, blogs or stories about how company X or product Y has implemented AI.

But does Squirrel365 need AI?

As CTO of Squirrel365, my responsibilities include research and development. A key part of my job is keeping an eye on emerging trends and technologies and identifying opportunities to improve the product. AI fits squarely in that bracket, but I’m having a hard time finding a good fit. Something that isn’t a just gimmick or a marketing ploy.  Specifically, I’m looking for use cases where AI would add value to a workflow, or make something quicker or easier than doing it manually.

An Excel Formula Bot

My first thought is an extension of what Donald MacCormick wrote about last year, An Excel Formula Bot. We already have a formula helper in Squirrel which advises what arguments are needed for each formula. Could we extend that to take a more conversational approach and generate the formula for you?

It would certainly tick the AI box, but does it add value to the workflow? Squirrel users are familiar with writing Excel formulas, so I see needing a bot to create a formula as an exception rather than an everyday occurrence.  Would the effort to integrate the AI into our formula parser workflow, to generate and insert the formula bring enough value to justify it? However, a simple helper (imagine a Squirrel version of Microsoft Clippy) to give formula assistance could be a better implementation.


Impact Analysis

Flipping the paradigm on its head.  Rather than asking AI to generate a formula based on a problem definition.  Could we have AI explain to you what a complex formula is doing?

Earlier this year we introduced an Impact Analysis tool for Squirrel.  Amongst other things, it allows you to traverse the cell references that make up a formula or show you which other cells are using the output of a formula.  This is very useful when you’re tracing where values come from or go, but sometimes you hit a formula which you can’t easily decipher.  It may have been written by someone else, or you wrote it during a moment of zen-like inspiration which you cannot now re-attain.  Asking the AI to describe the purpose of that formula conversationally could really be a great enhancement to the Impact Analysis tool, or even another capability for the Squirrel Clippy (I’m starting to like this idea now).


Image Generation

I was talking about AI in Squirrel during the Squirrel Experience Q&A session, where Rob Scott asked whether AI could be used in Squirrel for image generation.  We already integrate with Unsplash to bring beautiful, free images and photos to Squirrel, could an integration with DALL·E be a useful addition to the Squirrel toolkit?

My initial concern for AI-generated images was around IP and copyright.  Looking at DALL·E from OpenAI, they have addressed those issues and the images generated can be used for commercial purposes.  However, I still have some concerns about AI image generation inside Squirrel365.

  • How do we ensure it’s not a gimmick, just to say we’ve got AI in the product?
  • Does it add value or improvements above and beyond Unsplash or other stock photo services?
  • What would the user experience be like waiting for the image to be generated?

I did a couple of sample queries to generate a Squirrel clippy image.  The quality is a bit hit-and-miss (as you can see).

I think image generation is something to keep an eye on but doesn’t feel like a natural fit for Squirrel right now.


Colour assistance

I wrote about AI colour generation last year, where I asked AI to generate a colour pallet based on a phrase or description. Similar to Josh Tapley’s LinkedIn post about Coolors Dashboard Color Testing, my AI-generated output provided several hex codes to use in your project.   But if we’re looking to enhance Squirrel to integrate with AI then the output needs to be more integrated with the application and feel part of the workflow.

Last year we introduced simplified property panels in Squirrel. Part of the changes for this was the introduction of automatic accent colours.  For example, when selecting the colour of a button, it would automatically provide a contrasting colour for the text.  This was designed to prevent things like green text on a yellow button or dark text on black buttons etc.  We didn’t use AI for this, we just used some logic and colour theory to calculate the appropriate font colour. Could we change this to use AI instead?

I tested it out by asking ChatGPT to suggest a contrasting font colour to use on a button that is #22EE33 (bright green).

ChatGPT’s response was:

A common choice for good contrast with green is white (#ffffff) or a light gray color (#333333). These colors provide a strong contrast and make the text on the button easily readable


I tried both, and one is more readable than the other. This goes to show AI doesn’t always get it 100% right. If we were to integrate AI into Squirrel, I feel we would need to do it in a way that provides suggestions or pointers for improvements, rather than overruling your creative decisions.

Maybe this is another use case for Squirrel’s Clippy

Wrapping up

AI is an ever-changing landscape and has some great potential to enhance products. I’m yet to see a killer implementation in a product like Squirrel that isn’t gimmicky. However, that said, it is something I’m keeping my eye on and continuing to explore as part of our R&D.

Who knows maybe we’ll see Squirrel’s Clippy sometime soon?

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