The latest version of Microsoft Office has some nice new features and usability improvements, but for many of us, the default settings just don’t do the trick. As good as Office 2010 is, you can make it better by customizing configuration settings and installing a few add-ins. In this article, we’ll look at 10 ways you can make your Office 2010 experience a better one. Some of these are new to Office 2010 and some are tweaks that were around for previous editions of Office, but which many people never knew about.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Change the default color scheme

This has nothing to do with how the Office programs work, but everything to do with the environment in which you work with them. Some folks probably don’t care a whit, but to me the baby blue default color scheme in Office 2010 is distracting and actually reduces my productivity. I’m not really happy with either of the alternatives, either. The “black” is a muddy gray/dark tan color and it turns the folder pane and Today pane dark with white text, making it difficult to read. And the “silver” isn’t very silver; it’s more of a light gray. But I settled on silver as the easiest on my eyes and the least in-your- face choice.

To change the color scheme in any of the Office 2010 programs, click the File tab, click Options in the left pane, click General in the left Options pane and select Silver in the Color Scheme drop-down box (Figure A).

Figure A

You can change the distracting baby blue default color scheme to silver or black.

2: Customize the Ribbon

When the Ribbon was introduced in Office 2007, there was a tremendous outcry. Part of that was just the human aversion to learning something new, but even those of us (yes, I confess to being one of them) who liked the Ribbon had a complaint: Why couldn’t we customize it to fit the way we work?

Microsoft listened and, in Office 2010, added the capability to customize the Ribbon. This makes it much more useful and should alleviate some of the confusion among those upgrading from Office 2003. Now you can customize the Ribbon’s main tabs and tool tabs, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

New to Office 2010 is the option to customize the Ribbon to your liking.

You can remove commands you rarely use or group them differently to suit the way you work. You can create a new tab on the Ribbon or add your favorite commands to a new group on an existing tab. You can also rename commands. And of course, there is a “reset” option so you can return the Ribbon to its default look. You can even export your custom Ribbon and then import it into another instance of Office 2010. So once you get it configured just right on your desktop machine, you don’t have to go through that whole customization process again for your laptop. This Office Watch article explains more about customizing the Ribbon.

3: Customize the Quick Access Toolbar

Much as I like my customized Ribbon, there are some commands that I want to have available regardless of which Ribbon tab I’m in. That’s where the Quick Access toolbar comes in handy. Many Office users seem to overlook this little gem, but it’s one of the first things I set up when I install any recent version of Office.

I have my own set of commands that I put on the Quick Access bar, including Save, Save As, Undo, Redo, Email, New Comment, and New Document. I also like to move the toolbar so that it’s under the Ribbon instead of above it, as shown in Figure C. To move or customize the Quick Access toolbar, right-click on it and choose the appropriate action.

Figure C

A customized Ribbon still doesn’t take the place of the Quick Access toolbar.

4: Turn on Live Preview

Sometimes when you copy and paste material into an Office document, it doesn’t end up looking the way you thought it would. It can be difficult to know which of the Paste options (e.g., Keep Source Formatting, Merge Formatting, Keep Text Only) to use. Office 2010 helps to eliminate surprises by including the Live Preview feature, which lets you see exactly how copied content will look when you paste it in an Office application. When you right-click and hover the mouse pointer over each Paste option, you get a preview of what it will look like if you use that option to paste the content.

For some reason, the Live Preview feature is not enabled by default. To enable it, click File | Options and select the Enable Live Preview check box on the General page.

5: Tweak AutoCorrect options

AutoCorrect is a great feature that can save you a lot of time by correcting common typos automatically. However, it can also drive you crazy when it “corrects” what you intentionally typed. For example, by default when you type a word with two initial capital letters, Office corrects it by making the second letter lowercase. Most of the time, it’s a typo, and that’s what you want to happen. But what if you have a company name or product name that actually uses two initial capitals, such as TRick (a company named after someone named Thomas Rick)? Word will try to be helpful by changing it to “Trick.”

You could just patiently retype it the way you want it and Word will get the message and let it remain, but that takes extra time. You could turn off the TWo INitial Caps feature in the AutoCorrect settings, but then it wouldn’t correct the real typos of this nature. The best way to deal with it is to add an exception for TRick. Here’s how you do that:

  1. Select Options in the left pane of the BackStage menu, then select Proofing.
  2. Click the AutoCorrect Options button.
  3. On the AutoCorrect tab, click the Exceptions button.
  4. Click the INitial CAps tab and under Don’t Correct, type TRick and click Add, then click OK.

You can make exceptions for other types of corrections using the First Letter and Other Corrections tabs.

6: Create Quick Steps

One of the coolest new features in Outlook 2010 is Quick Steps. It allows you to create multi-step actions that you can apply to email messages. For example, I forward many messages to a particular person. Instead of having to click Forward, type in his name, and then click Send, I’ve created a Quick Step that lets me do all that by simply clicking a single button.
There is a wizard-type interface for creating a new Quick Step. Simply click Create New in the Quick Steps section of the Home tab and you’ll get the Edit Quick Step dialog box shown in Figure D.

Figure D

You can create Quick Steps to perform a multi-step action with one click.

6: Turn on Conversation view

In the beta version of Outlook 2010, the default arrangement for email messages was Conversation view. This view can make it easier to follow a discussion, as it consolidates all the messages in a conversation thread all into one nice package. In the final release, Conversation view was turned off by default. If you’d rather have it turned on, follow these steps:

  1. In the left column heading at the top of your message list, right-click where it says Arrange By: Date.
  2. Check the box that says Show As Conversations.

7: Install Social Connectors

The Outlook Social Connector (OSC) is built into Outlook 2010. It lets you install plug-ins that aggregate social networking information about your contacts in the People Pane at the bottom of an email message in the preview pane. Connector plug-ins bring in your contacts’ status updates and other information from social networking sites. The feature also displays other recent email conversations with that person, recent appointments, and the person’s profile picture. For more on how to use this feature, see Five tips for adding social media to Outlook 2010.

When Office 2010 was released in June, plug-ins were available only for LinkedIn and MySpace Microsoft has now added plug-ins for Windows Live Messenger and Facebook. It has also made the feature compatible with Outlook 2003 and 2007. This BNET article has the details.

8: Change default settings

No matter which version of Office you install, you should always go through the options and tweak the settings to suit yourself. In many cases, the defaults will work fine but in others, you’ll be happier with an alternative setting. For example, if Word’s grammar checker drives you batty (considering it’s often wrong, especially when it comes to complex sentences), you can turn it off by unchecking Mark Grammar Errors As You Type in the Proofing section of Word Options. You can also click the Settings button and specify which grammatical issues should be checked, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Each Office 2010 application offers many configurable options you can tweak.

On the Save page, you might want to change the default setting so that the applications save documents in the older .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats instead of .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx if you often share documents with people who use Office 2003. You also might consider saving autorecovery information more often than every 10 minutes. If you’re a fast typist, you can create a lot of content in 10 minutes. You also may want to change default save locations.

The Advanced page gives you a plethora of options for editing, cutting and pasting, images, how document content is displayed, printing, and more. Want to be prompted before saving changes to the Normal template? There’s a check box for that.

10: Install add-ins

You can enhance the functionality of Office 2010 by installing add-ins for the specific functions your work requires. For example, I use Twitter extensively to announce the publication of my articles and point my followers to interesting or useful tech articles written by others. It’s much easier for me to tweet from Outlook than to open up the Twitter Web site, so I’ve installed Twinbox, an add-in that lets you create updates, receive updates from those you follow, and manage and search tweets the same way you search your Outlook mailbox.

The add-in behaves a little differently in Outlook 2010, compared to Outlook 2007. In the latter, Twinbox puts a toolbar in Outlook underneath the other toolbars. In Outlook 2010, the Ribbon contains an Add-ins tab. You’ll have to go there to find your Twinbox toolbar, shown in Figure F.

Figure F

Add-ins such as Twinbox can add to the functionality of Office applications.

You can manage add-ins with the Add-in Manager, which you’ll find in the Options dialog box for each application.