How Stuff Works

What is Airtable?

March 30, 2021

People often struggle to describe Airtable, because it is fundamentally different than tools for organization and data storage that we're used to. It looks and acts kind-of like a spreadsheet, but really, it's nothing like a spreadsheet. So what is it? Why would you use it? At the core, Airtable is a database - a highly structured program designed to store many types of data.

We rely on databases for every single app and website we visit, but they're hidden behind a facade that presents the underlying data in a prettier, simpler way. Airtable allows you to create that prettier, simpler facade for yourself. They call it the democratization of app design.

Does Airtable replace spreadsheets?

It depends! In running my small business, I still use Excel daily, and I don't see that changing any time soon. But Airtable has replaced more than half of the functions that I used to rely on Excel for: employee time tracking, expense tracking, project management, inventory, and our customer database all live in Airtable - basically anything that needs quick, easy data capture and benefits from better organization. Still in Excel: Cash forecasting, financial models, and budgeting - anything that requires a more free-form analysis.

Still confused? Let's talk about features.

Field types

In Airtable, every column, or "field", has a type that you pick. It can be a number or text (with support for emojis 😃), but it can also be a checkbox, a drop-down selection, a date, or an attachment (yes, you can drop a PDF or any other file type into a cell). Once you've specified the field type, you can't put anything else in that field. That keeps you organized and eliminates the possibility for many errors that we typically make in a spreadsheet. Possibly more important, it's fun! Oh and did I mention the awesome colors? More on those later.

An Airtable database is called a "base." Here's an example base where employees can record their work-related expenses:

Views

Remember when Gmail brought search to email? We used to spend hours filing and deleting emails, and then one day google told us all it was actually ok to never delete an email again, because finding a needle in a haystack just became incredibly easy. Airtable's view feature has a similar effect on spreadsheet data.

Say you're a clothing store looking at your inventory, which has hats, pants, T-shirts and socks, but you often want to see just how many T-shirts you have. In Airtable, you would just create a view that filters out anything but T-shirts, perhaps grouped by size and sorted by price. All of the information on pants, hats, etc is still there in hiding, but you're able to focus on what matters in the moment. Your views live on the left sidebar for easy access. In Excel, this kind of 'view' can be achieved by creating tables and using table filters, but you would need to filter out the T-shirts every time you want to look at them. In Airtable, you can create and save any number of views and reference them by visiting the sidebar.

You can experiment with the views in the expense tracking example above by clicking or hovering over "Main View" in the upper left part of the window. It will open a menu where you can choose another view, "Personal Expenses" that shows only expenses where the employee used their personal funds to make a purchase.

Forms

Forms in Airtable are a type of view. Creating a form is as simple as clicking a button, which automatically creates a form from all of the fields in your table. You can then share a URL for this form, and when a user completes it, the data automatically populates your table. Magic! This is how all of my staff submits their hours and expenses. While forms are perhaps the best extra view type, you can also create a calendar, a Gantt chart for project management, or a few other very useful view types with a click of a button.

The form below is live. If you fill it out and submit, your entry will show up in the expense base above.

Linked records

Now we're getting nerdy! This is the most foreign feature if you’re new to Airtable. It is really hard to understand without using it, but it's kind of like if you designed Excel to treat VLookup (or Index(Match)) as a core principle. I'll try to paint a picture here, using time tracking as an example.

All of my employees submit their hours through an Airtable form. The form feeds a table that shows their name and when they started and ended work. If I want to know how much payroll is going to cost this week, I need one more piece of information: their hourly wage. Should I enter that into each row? No, that's super redundant and time-consuming. In Excel, I would create a different table with each employee's name and wage, and then use a formula to look up their wage. In Airtable, I'd also create a separate table with the employee's name and hourly wage, but I wouldn't need to write a formula to lookup that information in my time sheet table - it would be automatically linked when I chose the employee from a list, and then easily pulled in via the "lookup" field type. If you're confused, stop scratching your head and look at this example here.

One version, in the cloud

Self explanatory. Like google docs, Airtable lives in the cloud. No need to trade versions and worry about who has the most up-to-date document. This also means, however, that you need an internet connection to access it.

Color and design

More than any other comparable software, Airtable is beautiful, simple to use, and colorful. For this reason, it's a pleasure to use, and I can't emphasize enough how important that is. Data is boring stuff! But is it? That little endorphin boost I get when I create a cool new form view begs to differ.

Thanks for reading the basics about Airtable! If you made it this far, you probably saw a couple features that could be game-changers for your workflow. I've been using Airtable to run my business for a while now. On this blog, I write about my experience using Airtable and how best to use it as a tool to meet the needs of a small business.