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Weblog Entry

Office UI

October 14, 2005

There’s a great new blog over at MSDN from Jensen Harris, a member of the Microsoft Office user experience team. In case you haven’t seen the screenshots floating around, the forthcoming Office 12 from Microsoft is undergoing a pretty significant UI update, so reading one of the people working on it has been fascinating.

Jensen is writing in detail about historical UI decisions, evolution of the office suite, and some user testing results that might surprise you. A lot of their findings are definitely not Office-specific. Some notable recent posts:

Stroking the Keys in Office 12
In which Office visibly exposes shortcut keys when you hold down alt. Great idea; I believe Windows has been using a similar concept with underlined shortcut keys in menus for years, but this is a much more obvious way of emphasizing the connection between shortcut and function. Now if one of the major browsers were to get accesskeys working this way…
Be Willing To Be Wrong
In which Office’s new Ribbon toolbar tried and failed as a left-to-right layout in order of descending importance. Turns out items near the middle are far more visible. This is my favourite post in the bunch so far.
Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past
In which Office’s UI history is recounted from the 80’s up to the last major release.
Saddle Up to the MiniBar
In which Office implements a mini formatting menu on selection. I love the idea, but from the comments on the post it sounds like it’s tightly saddled to text formatting only. A shame, I’d have expected it to be modal, taking it’s specific palette of tools at any given time from the Ribbon toolbar.

I have to admit, “Microsoft” and “Great UI” are two phrases that don’t often appear together in my mind, but credit where it’s due. The Office team seems to be doing a bang-up job on the next release.


1
Joey says:
October 14, 10h

One thing I miss about Lotus products is the InfoBox … as I recall, Lotus got a patent on it, and I’ve wondered if that’s stymied some Office UI innovations. It came to mind when you mentioned your thoughts on the MiniBar.

October 15, 02h

I am very excited to see Microsoft introduce new UI components and interaction methods. There have been few, if any, real innovations in GUI design in the past decade or so. So far, Office 12 looks promising.

As I have written about Vista, Microsoft seems to be intent on making everything shiny and using predefined bright colors. Both of which have a tendency to be distracting. In an application focused on content creation, the UI should be as neutral and unobtrusive as possible. Color being subjective, using non-user-configurable bold colors to indicate modes and selections has the potential to put off users. Working in an environment for an extended period of time with colors that the user finds objectionable can make for an unpleasant experience. Additionally, white text on yellow and text over shiny things, as seen in several of the screenshots and videos, is not particularly readable.

As for the KeyTips: were underlines really that bad? The KeyTips popup over the button’s text in some cases, and over the icons, in others. Either way, information is obscured, which isn’t favorable, even if momentarily.

October 15, 02h

Oh my gosh! Looks like office is taking a major step backwards in its usability, from the small step forwards it took with Office XP. The new toolbar looks far too bloated with far too many presentational options, and the few semantic options in there are virtually hidden.

I was really hoping document authoring tools (particularly Word) would learn the very concepts that web developers are pushing for HTML+CSS: separation of presentation from the structure, semantics and content.

IMHO, MS Word needs to remove every single presentational option (bold, italic, fonts, etc) from the toolbars and focus on provinding truly semantic and structure based templates. Of course the user should be able to style such templates, but that should be kept completely separate from the content authoring. The new MiniBar disgusts me for this very reason, since it places such options right in the middle of the content.

4
Ash Searle says:
October 15, 04h

Internet Explorer does support highlighting accessKey codes, with a custom CSS attribute ‘accelerator’, and some extra HTML in your links/labels:

http://msdn.microsoft.com/workshop/author/dhtml/reference/properties/accelerator.asp

October 15, 06h

I am excited, too, seeing a new UI for Office 12. It doesn’t look promising in terms of functionality though. Those toolbars look like temporary buttons for drag and drop only.

6
Ivan says:
October 15, 08h

I’ve seen lots of negative comments from programmers and designers. I’m a programmer myself, but let’s not forget Office is not for programmers. It’s for *everybody*. Separating semantics from presentation? What user is going to understand that?

Besides, as the blog says, they’ve been doing lots of user testing, and they seem to be headed in the right direction.

I *personally* can’t wait to try something different from the labyrinth of menus of current applications.

Henrik says:
October 17, 03h

To Ivan:
I quote Rick Scott who posted a comment in the MiniBar blog entry: “I disagree. If its done JUST right, it can have a great penetration, at the expense of further learning.

For instance, if the MiniBar had a button that said “Make Heading” that automatically Bolded, Centered and increased font size by 1 (or changed it to a certain font size like 14 or 18), it would be very learnable. The customization part would be a simple property page on what “make heading” means that intermediate users could play with. Basically like the H1 tag in HTML…its pre-set to look like a huge heading. “

8
Isaac Lin says:
October 17, 12h

Lachlan, I would suspend judgment on how Office 12 handles styles until Jensen writes about it – he ha s promised to do so in the future.

9
Isaac Lin says:
October 19, 01h

For some time now the menu model has become unwieldy, and there are way too many toolbars to keep track of now. The menu interface has served users well, but I do think we can benefit from a new interface. I’m not sure the ribbon interface is the best new possibility, but am curious to see it in action.

Henrik says:
October 22, 08h

I just felt I needed to add a thought - I really really hope they improve the export to HTML mode, adopt a standardized document format… and especially that they fix the _very_ annoying bugs when working tightly with Excel and working with lots of data - doing physics lab reports and having to format the graphs and tables is a night-mare.

For example: I copy-paste a graph from excel - only one line-height of its hight is visible… Annoying. So I rightclick and choose layout. Boxed, center. It centers on top of the page outside the paper margin. I move it down - but I have a table on the same page. Alright, think Word, I’ll position it INSIDE a TABLE CELL! This of course makes the whole table 2x with width of the paper and also makes it a lot harder to move it down where is SHOULD be.

Or… I paste as a workbook instead of an image into word. I double click and edit something, e.g. an error-bar on a graph. Doubleclick outside the graph… Suddenly with width of the graph is the same as my screen resolution - 1240 px. Nice!

Oh… And another thing (on this site) - the comment preview button - your sidebar comes up when I press preview, so that the text in the blog entry flows _over_ it.

Cheers
Henke

Jessica says:
November 13, 22h

I have no doubt the new Office will be the hottest microsoft product until the releaes of vista.I cant wait to play with some of the new features her blog says are coming. She has done a great job with her blog and I hope she keeps up the great work.