Word 2007: Lessons on usability

Although Microsoft says that the radical interface changes in Word 2007 are aimed at enhancing usability, not everyone is convinced that the goal has been met. Justin James analyzes several aspects of the redesign and offers a case in support of the changes.

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Much ink and many bytes have been consumed in the debate of Office 2007's new interface. Everyone agrees that the new look and feel of Office is a radical departure from the interface that Office has been using since its inception. From Office 2000 through Office 2003, the interface has been nearly untouched, other than some gradients and other beautification. Just what was the thinking behind the new interface?

It is no secret that Office (particularly Word) has been an application that users love to hate. You could often spend more time and effort trying to figure out how to format a block of text than writing the block of text. Word is the application that gets most of the attention, with Excel coming in a distant second. There is a good reason for this: Everyone uses Word and Outlook, many people use Excel, and far fewer people use Access, Publisher, etc. On top of that, the assumption is that Word should require little training or sophistication to use, since it is "simply" a word processor. Conversely, it's assumed that Access requires a trained or technically savvy user; it is a database, after all.

Except for Word, Outlook, and Excel, the Office suite applications are all special-purpose applications that users would need training or experience to use, regardless of their software choice. Excel often gets a free pass, because while a billion people use it as an ad hoc database, people tend to do a bit less with Excel than they attempt to do with Word. When they go for the advanced features, they expect it to be difficult. Outlook actually has always been fairly easy to use, except for the Word-powered e-mail editor and the initial configuration, which is no worse than any other e-mail client, due to the complexities of setting up e-mail. So today, I will take a look at Word 2007 and try to make sense of the usability decisions that went into it, and how the changes relate to usability in general.

Toolbar changes

The first thing everyone notices about Word is the toolbar. In fact, that's where the bulk of the changes were made. The menu bar is completely gone. In its place (and looking just like a menu bar), are tab controls that change which major set of toolbar functions are displayed (Figure A).

Figure A


To put it simply, Word's never-ending cascading menus have been flattened into major toolbar groups. Within each toolbar group are minor groups of toolbar buttons, organized by subcategory. For example, the Page Layout major group contains the minor groups Themes, Page Setup, Page Background, Paragraph, and Arrange. Another item to note is that unlike a traditional toolbar, the buttons are not all equally sized. Some buttons have arrows to indicate that they have further options that can be selected, above and beyond the displayed default.

One of the most curious changes is that only six items are always displayed on the screen, in addition to the standard Minimize/Maximize/Restore/Close group in the top left: The Office icon that provides access to saving options, the Save icon, the Undo and Redo buttons, a down arrow for changing toolbar displays, and the Help icon (Figure B and Figure C).

Figure B


Figure C


Other big changes

There are only three other really noticeable, major changes in the interface. The first is that hovering over a block of selected text brings up a "fade in" of a small toolbar right next to the block, containing a few of the most common items that apply specifically to that type of selection (Figure D). The second is that hovering over any toolbar selection applies those attributes automatically, as appropriate, and then unapplies them when you move the mouse off the button (Figure E).

Figure D



Figure E


The third big change is a welcome redesign of the ancient image editing system that has made an external graphics editor a must for anyone working with images in Word documents. The new image editor (Figure F) is much improved over the venerable control that has been around since at least Office 2000, and more likely back to 4.3.

Figure F


How is the new version an improvement from a usability standpoint, with its constantly shifting toolbars and the tiny icons for the most common items? On the surface, the design decisions make little sense. A bit of study and use reveals the thinking behind them.

The design rationale

Previous versions of Word have been so complex that the user had to consciously think about using them. All users eventually had to learn the complex tree of menus to access the items they used on a regular basis. If someone asked you for help, you'd recite the lengthy list of steps you took to get to the command. WordPerfect had keyboard overlays to help users remember its huge list of commands; Word has actually been worse, forcing users to wander through menus to eventually find what they were looking for.

Let's start with the toolbar itself. In no cases, are more clicks required to access any particular function than in previous versions--and in many cases, fewer clicks are needed. For example, changing styles used to be one click to drop the Style list and a second click to select the new style, assuming you didn't need to scroll through the list. Now, you simply highlight your text and click the large button for the appropriate style at the top of the window. Thanks to the automatic preview, you even see what the style will look like before you select it."

Paste is now one click, or two, if you are not on the Home toolbar. In the past, it was always one click from the toolbar or two from the menu. Even more important is its positioning. Previously, a trip to Paste was either to the top of the screen and then to the Edit menu (below the window border, a few menu positions to the right, then down the menu) or a small square icon mixed in with the other icons. The new Paste icon is smack in the top-left corner (Figure G).The user's tendency is to "slam" the mouse along a diagonal to get to the corner of the screen and then work toward the center to find the desired option. That slam is almost always toward the top-left corner, not the top-right. In other words, when you slam the mouse to access commands, your pointer lands nearly perfectly on the large, friendly Paste icon. This is a significant improvement.

Figure G


Similarly, the same decision was made for the few icons that you always need: Save, Undo, and Redo. After the initial learning curve of trying to figure out where they are, the mouse instinctively finds them. No more having to consciously search the toolbar looking for them and precisely clicking on a tiny icon. Although the icons are no bigger than in the past, the top-left positioning and lack of neighbors makes it easy to seek out Save, Undo, and Redo.

Even the button sizing is interesting. Many of the buttons that used to be commonly used seem to be diminished. Most notable in the downgraded list are font controls (font size, font face, bold, italic, etc.). Instead, styles are much more prominent. The reasoning behind this is fairly obvious: The user is encouraged to choose the Emphasis style over making text italic. Why? Both methods seem to do the same thing. Well, not quite.

Although the default Emphasis style does simply make the text italic, it also adds a strong semantic value to the text. Word (or anything else parsing the text) now "knows" that the "why" is to put emphasis on the text; the "how" is through italics. If the user later decides to emphasize text by making it bold, or larger, or whatever, he or she merely changes the definition of the Emphasis style. In a nutshell, styles do for Word documents what CSS does for HTML documents, and the new interface encourages the "why-based" approach of styles over the "how-based" approach of manual text formatting.

In addition to guiding the user, the button sizing and placement serves another function, which is to unbury the less commonly used commands. As previously mentioned, the most common items are positioned so that the mouse seeks them naturally, but the less common items are given visual preference. Why? So that when you enter the "hunt for the command" mode, you find them more quickly and easily. One of the biggest gripes against Word is that out of the hundreds of commands available in it, no one ever can locate what they need--and the items they always use require too many clicks to access. The new interface addresses that by letting the mouse seek the common items and making it easy to scan for the less common items.

The "fade in" toolbar is, of course, a welcome and obvious change, and so is the improved image editor. But how is the preview function useful? Anyone who has been working on a document with a lot of formatting knows the old routine: Select the text, put one hand on the mouse to change formatting, and the other hand on [Ctrl]Z to rapidly undo the selection and try a new one. (You never really wanted to just keep changing formatting without undoing it first, in case AutoCorrect mangled your text).

The new system allows you to skip the constant undo cycle and see exactly how the text will look before committing to a selection. It is like the difference between picking the color for a car by seeing pictures in a book and hoping the color you select looks good in reality and actually seeing that color on the car at the dealership. The preview alone makes Word a much more usable piece of software.

Is the new Office interface a major change? You bet. It took me a good deal of usage (about three or four articles and blog posts written in it) to get the basics nailed down. Does it require retraining? Oddly enough, I would say "no." The biggest problem with the new interface is not learning it, but unlearning the old interface. It's similar to the Macintosh interface, in that a first-time computer user is much less baffled by it than a veteran. Ironically enough, so many people already use Office (almost anyone who might use it has already used it) that an interface that's easy for a newcomer but hard for a seasoned user seems like an odd choice. But now that I've adapted to the new way of doing things, I find that my efficiency and productivity have gone up dramatically. Yes, the initial learning curve is a bit steep, mostly mired in "that used to be here, where did it go?" But once that period is over, the functionality you use daily is so intuitive that you can't explain how to do it, and the features you use less often are much easier to find.