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Google Apps Script Tutorial: Creating Time Tracker, a Spreadsheet sidebar app

The finished product: a spreadsheet app running in a sidebar

Google Apps Script is a big subject with a long history and very few complete tutorials. I had a deceptively simple question that ended up as this article: what does a minimum, typical Google Apps Script program look like and what are current best practices? All the existing tutorials I know about leave a huge amount unsaid, and work best if you already know Apps Script.

Most Apps Script programs start with some kind of user input. That normally requires a custom form. Custom forms use HTML and are translated into Javascript objects in Google Apps, and they function very differently from the branded Google Forms. This app will appear as a sidebar on a spreadsheet. It gets built automatically by the built-in ‘onOpen()’ function, whch is triggered when the spreadsheet is first loaded. When you choose it from the menu, the sidebar itself is created and displayed.

This tutorial shows you step by step how to create the simple activity tracker shown below, which lets you jot down something you did, then timestamps it and appends both items to the end of a spreadsheet.

The finished product: a spreadsheet app running in a sidebar

Features of the final product:

Write a function to build the sidebar when a user opens the spreadsheet

 * @OnlyCurrentDoc

 * Built-in function that runs when a spreadsheet is loaded.
function onOpen(e) {
    // Create a high-level menu named 'Sidebar'
        .createMenu('Time tracker') 
        // Add a menu item called 'Show Sidebar'
        // that runs the function showSidebar.
        .addItem('Show time tracker', 'showSidebar')
        // Attach it to the main menu bar.

Called when the spreadsheet is lodaed, this function obtains a reference to the UI object, creates a custom menu with its own title and a single menu item, then attaches the new menu to to the spreadsheet’s UI and displays it. When you choose the one menu item, a function called showSidebar() gets called. You can give that function any name.

The e argument represents the event that triggered this function, in this case then onOpen() event. We don’t need to use its properties.

Write a function that executes when the menu item is chosen

According to the onOpen() code, when the user chooses Show time tracker the function showSidebar() runs. showSidebar() is where the sidebar its self gets displayed. Let’s add this function to the file

 * User-defined function that gets called when
 * the sidebar needs to be displayed in the UI.
 * It doesn't have to be named 'sidebar.html'.
 * But doing so makes it easier to share code.
function showSidebar() {
  // Create a javascript object of type HtmlOutput from the
  // named 'html' file, which in this case is sidebar.html,
  // but omit the '.html' extension.
  // Give the title bar the lable "Time tracker"
  var ui = HtmlService.createHtmlOutputFromFile('sidebar')
      .setTitle('Time tracker');
  // Display the sidebar. This can take a couple of seconds.

Write a server-side function to be called from the HTML

We’re getting a little premature here, but the remaining code below gets called from the HTML. In this case, it will be run when the user clicks the OK button.

Add this to the file

 * Obtain information from the sidebaar
 * and make it available to the server.
 * Server-side, user-defined functions 
 * like this one become part of the
 * globally visible object.
 * That means that they're visible to the
 * "client" HTML code and can be called
 * from them like this:
 *"hello, world.")
 * @param {string} activity - Description of event to add to log
 function activityLog(activity) {
  // For obtaining the current time
  var d = new Date();
  // This is a single call that obtains
  // the spreadsheet being used at the moment.
  // You pass an array of any size to appendRow(),
  // and it adds a row to the end of the spreadsheet
  // with each element of the array in an adjacent cell.
    .appendRow([d.toLocaleTimeString(), activity])

Create an HTML file for the form

The sidebar is a custom form using HTML syntax. Start an HTML file:

A dialog appears asking you to give the file a name.

Remember that the name of an HTML file gets passed to HtmlService.createHtmlOutputFromFile()? The name we established for it was sidebar.html, but remember there’s no need for the file extension, so the code above is HtmlService.createHtmlOutputFromFile('sidebar')

A new tab with the code appears. Enter this code, which describes a very simple user interfact:

It includes Google’s add-ons1.cs to help give your app a GSuite-compatible look and feel, and an early but very capable version of jQuery that streamlines the HTML you need to write and can be used for the script’s event loop.

file: sidebar.html
<!DOCTYPE html>
    <base target="_top">
       <!-- Make it look Googly -->
    <link rel="stylesheet" href="">
    <!-- Give the UI a little breathing room -->
    <style>form { margin-left: 1em; } button { margin-top: .5em; } .help { visibility: hidden; }</style>
     <h3>Activity log</h3>
     <!-- Single text box with OK button.
     Enter text to be logged, and it will be passed 
     pack to the server to be written to the spreadsheet
     along with the current time. -->
     <input type="text" 
      <!-- class=blue is supplied by ad-ons1.css -->
      <button class="blue" 
    <p id="activity-note-description" 
        Type in an activity to track</p>
    <p id="ok-button-description" 
        Adds this note to the spreadsheet</p>

<!-- Use jquery to clarify and abridge Javascript code. --> 
<script src="//"></script>


 * This jQuery() function runs when the page is finished loading.
 * It is unsafe to start executing code before that moment.
 * Think of it as the main event loop.
$(function() {
  // Attach a click handler to the button
  // whose `id` element is `ok-button`. 
  // There should be no other elements
  // with that ID.

 * Called when the user clicks the OK button.
 * This function could be called anything.
 * Just make sure it matches the click() event
 * code, which in this case only exists for
 * the element named '#ok-button'.
 * User-defined functions in your HTML 
 * be named activityLog(). It becomes part of the 
 * globally visible object.
 function getActivityNote() {
  // Obtain the value of the text box whose
  // `id` element was set to `description`.
  // Send it to the server. If a function named
  // activityLog() can be found in or
  // any other .gs files, it can use the
  // description to add a new row to the spreadsheet.
  // The function name activityLog() is user-defined
  // and could be named anything you want.$("#activity-note").val())

Whew! What’s going on here?

Google Apps Script doesn’t host HTML and render it the way you’d think. For security reasons HTML isn’t run directly. It’s stripped of dangerous script tags and other potentially dangers features. So it actually converts the HTML and CSS into Javascript objects. That’s what’s happening when HtmlService.createHtmlOutputFromFile() takes the sidebar.html file (which we’ll create in a moment) as input and returns a Javascript object of type HtmlOutputFile.

Forms like this don’t work like traditional HTML forms

Standard HTML forms have some kind of form submission action that results in form values being sent to the server, which then results in a page reload.

You don’t want a page reload to happen. That would disrupt the spreadsheet and just plain look bad. Instead, a click handler is attached to the OK button. It calls getActivityNote() which obtains the note of the text written in the text box. It then calls a server-side function (without an actual form submit) named activityLog(). Both functions could be called anything. It’s the programmer’s choice.

See the sidebar in action

New menu named Time Tracker added to main menu bar

Deal with authorization issues

Google is serious about security. When you try to continue you get a moderately scary dialog:


see its single item called Show time tracker:

"Show time tracker" menu item added to Time Tracker menu

Sidebar added to the spreadsheet

It appears in the spreadsheet, with the time automatically inserted into the previous cell.

A few rows added to the spreadsheet

Congratulations! You’ve built and run something in Google Apps Script that: