Spreadsheet debugging: The perils of tool over-reliance

Adil Mukhtar*, Birgit Hofer, Dietmar Jannach, Franz Wotawa

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Spreadsheets are widely used in organizations for various purposes such as data aggregation, reporting and decision-making. Since spreadsheets, like other types of software, can contain faulty formulas, it is important to provide developers with appropriate methods to find and fix such faults. Recently, various heuristic and statistics-based fault identification methods were proposed, which point developers to potentially faulty parts of the spreadsheets. Due to their heuristic nature, these methods might, however, miss some faults. As a result, if spreadsheet developers rely too strongly on these methods, they might not pay sufficient attention to problems that are not pinpointed by the methods. In this research, we are the first to study this potential problem of over-reliance in spreadsheet debugging, which may lead to limited debugging effectiveness. We report the outcome of a controlled experiment where 59 participants were tasked to find faulty formulas in a given spreadsheet with and without support of a novel spreadsheet debugging tool. Our results indicate that tool over-reliance can indeed result as a phenomenon of using heuristic debugging techniques. However, the study also provides evidence that making users aware of potential tool limitations within the debugging environment may help to address this problem. Open Science material was validated by the Journal of Systems and Software Open Science Board.

Original languageEnglish
Article number111119
JournalJournal of Systems and Software
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022


  • Fault identification
  • Over-reliance
  • Spreadsheets
  • User study

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Information Systems
  • Hardware and Architecture

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