Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past (Why the UI, Part 2)


This is the second part in my weekly series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided to pursue a new user interface for Office 12.  You can read last week’s installment here: Part 1.

Today, I want to take you on a journey.  A journey that starts back into the cold recesses of the mid-1980s, back into the days of EGA and serial port mice and the MS-DOS Executive.

Microsoft Word 1.0 for Windows shipped in 1989 after a long development cycle and was designed to run on Windows 386.  There’s not much more to the program than what you see here, but it gives you an idea of how far Word’s come.  The Berlin Wall was still up but if you squint your eyes, you can see the core of today’s Word UI already present.  There’s an application-level menu bar, which Windows evolved from the Mac’s top-level menu bar and the bottom-of-the-screen menu display of Microsoft’s DOS programs.  Word 1.0 also includes something not seen often in user interfaces since PARC: the toolbar.  First used by Microsoft in Excel, it might look like there are two toolbars in Word 1.0, but in reality only the top bar is called a toolbar.  Interestingly, the bottom row of buttons is called the “Ribbon”–something we didn’t discover until I went back and made these screenshots some number of months ago.  It’s a small world.


(Word 1.0 – Click to view full picture)

By the time Word 2.0 hit the market in 1992, the basic structure of the Word user interface has already solidified exactly as it is in Word 2003 today.  File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table, Window, Help.  A “Standard” and “Formatting” toolbar.  Here’s a program that was in design more than 15 years ago and yet the basic user interface has remained stable all this time.  (I was in junior high school at the time, programming on my Apple //c.)


(Word 2.0 – Click to view full picture)

Yet, the thing was, this UI worked well for a program like Word 2.0.  It had fewer than 100 commands, and because the Word team was able to plan the ideal menu structure for their program, the organization made sense.  The toolbars were simply efficient duplicates of functionality found in the menu structure–no features existed only on toolbars.  Browsing the menus was straightforward and fast–most menus had less than 10 items on them, and no menu hosted any fly-off hierarchical menus.

Word 6.0 was a runaway hit.  Capitalizing on the popularity of Windows 3.1, this was the turning point in Word’s competition with WordPerfect.  In terms of new user interface evolution, Word 6 introduced right-click context menus, tabbed dialog boxes, wizards, and toolbars along the bottom of the screen.  The number of toolbars jumped from two in the previous version to eight in Word 6, and the menus became more full as features were added to the product.


(Word 6.0 – Click to view full picture)

Word 95 was the first 32-bit version of the product, designed to ride the wave of hoopla from the Windows 95 launch in August 1995.  Although it was pretty much a straight port of Word 6, one small, innovative feature was introduced that most people would agree they wouldn’t want to live without: red-squiggle underlined spell-checking.  Many people cite Word 95 as the last in a generation of simpler, trimmed-down, pre-Internet word processors.


(Word 95 – Click to view full picture)

While a small team had been working to port Office to the 32-bit OS and eventually shipping Office 95, a much larger team was working on what would become Office 97.  Office 97 was a huge blockbuster, setting software sales records.  Chock full of new features, Word 97 marked the beginning of a new stage of super-rich productivity apps.


(Word 97 – Click to view full picture)

This richness took its toll in complexity, however.  Office 97 introduced “command bars”, an ultra-customizable user interface in which menus and toolbars were really the same thing.  Every menu and toolbar could be dragged around to every side of the screen and floated or docked.  Feature designers within Microsoft took full advantage of this new technology, with the number of toolbars rocketing up to 18 and the number of commands on the top-level menus nearly doubling.

Arguably, the most important UI decision made in Word 97 was a simple one: introducing hierarchical menus.  In all previous versions of Word, menus were a single list of items–easily scannable, easy to navigate.  Excel, taking a cue from 1-2-3’s labyrinthine UI, had previously introduced hierarchical menus and though there was an internal struggle between the development teams, eventually the Excel model prevailed and Word 97 got multi-level hierarchical menus.

Why was the decision made?  Well, the top-level menus in Word were full.  Although an ever-increasing number of features were implemented only on toolbars, some features still needed menu entries and no room was left for them.  Wrapping commands into multiple levels made more room for new commands.  More room meant more features.

The downside, however, was clear and eventually terminal: increased complexity.  It’s much more difficult for people to form a scanning strategy with hierarchical menus: you have to keep track at each moment which levels you’ve visited and which you’ve haven’t.  What was once a simple structure to visualize was now a more complicated, branching structure.  Browsing for features was now less like looking at a shopping list and more like traversing a complex data structure.

Word 97 was the first version in which we started to see signs that people were feeling less in control of the program.  Office 97 was a huge hit with both individuals and companies, but It was also the beginning of a long series of press stories accusing Office of being “bloated.”

Next Monday, how Office worked to reduce the perception of “bloat.”

(Edit: Chris Pratley reminded me that he wrote a fascinating inside look at the history of Word last year.  I meant to link it when I wrote this article, but then forgot.  Thanks for the reminder, Chris!)

Comments (38)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Download the presentation also, it is very entertaining, especially the parts with the Rolling Stones Start Me Up and Prince 1999. I think this where I found the links to PPT slides:

    (edited by Jensen to point to better location): http://www.sunflowerhead.com/msimages/OFF201_Harris.zip

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would like you to discuss something I truly don’t get in the Office UI world. When I open up Word other than for reading an existing file, chances are that I am willing to write a new document : the writing is in two phases with the latter completely optional. The first phase is that I write the document without taking care of the formatting. At all. And showing me big UI buttons and toolbars will all sorts of formatting options does not cut. It is simply inappropriate.

    Even for tables. In the first phase, I don’t need to use the table tool. I need to be able to use TAB and ENTER to build a table, sort of, and then in the second phase, I MIGHT be tempted to use the table conversion tool to add borders to it and perhaps a style.

    So the second phase is completely optional, it’s the formatting optional. Here what I would need, if I really care about sharing documents with a "look", is to get access to a template box from which I can choose a template which fits best my desire. Click.

    That’s it. The document is done.

    How much of the UI did I actually use? (I am not talking about keyboard shortcuts obviously) Almost none, and guess what I don’t miss anything.

    I understand some other people may need UI in Word to allow them to do more. But then at which point shall we decide that Word is just not the right tool to do those additional things? I don’t get it.

    Any view to share?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Interesting comment, Anon, but I would expect that more users construct a document in a very different sequence (at least I do).

    When I create a document, I format as I go. That way a title FEELS like a title, and a bulleted list FEELS like a bulleted list. Formatting content can be as important as the content itself to present it properly.

    As for the 1-click "make it look right" button you are looking for: how is the computer supposed to know what you want it to look like? And how is the computer supposed to know how different parts of your document should be formatted differently?

    If what you mean is "I only ever use simple headers and normal text", then applying styles is the proper method. I think that Office 12 is going to bring some much better "style browsing" capability than what we’ve had before.

    But the concept that we could have a magic "format my document" button was pretty widely rejected: How popular was the "autoformat" feature? Those that even knew it existed screamed for it to be turned off. "Why is Word messing with my document??"

  4. Anonymous says:

    "When I create a document, I format as I go."

    To me that’s just weird. Doing that makes me lose my train of thoughts.

    "how is the computer supposed to know what you want it to look like?"

    The computer is not supposed to know everything, but 1) it can learn, for instance a combo box should show the recently/often used items first. 2) I am willing to select a document template to apply on the content. This may itself be divided in two steps. The first step is just barebone template choice, and then you can go finish applying other styles to some individual objects. Statistically speaking, the second step does not have to be mandatory in many cases.

    "And how is the computer supposed to know how different parts of your document should be formatted differently? "

    I wholeheartedly disagree. You and I don’t type random letters. Those are sequences of words making sentences and paragraphs. So basically the computer can show you the structure and for instance find the title of each paragraph.

    Also, guess what, the Word object model is based on such hierarchy of elements. Just not the UI where everything is all over the place.

    Understand me well though, I am saying that almost no UI is good enough. Whatever happened to Wordpad. Question : according to you, how many of us writing Word documents could achieve exactly the same using Wordpad?

    Of course I pay premium for Wordpad with a template box to choose from. That’s it.

    "How popular was the "autoformat" feature? "

    I disagree again. This option is buried in the tens of menu options. That to me was more an artefact and has caused the problem/

  5. jensenh says:

    The truth is, there are tons of different Office work styles out there. With hundreds of millions of users, you’re going to find that a lot of people do a lot of different things.

    The UI has to be flexible and enable all these ways of working.

    I personally change my work style. Sometimes I get all my thoughts on the page and then format later. Sometimes I format as I go to get a sense of what the document’s looking like. Sometimes I need to format as I go because I want to know exactly how many pages I’ve typed so far…

    To each their own.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Looking back at the upgrade from v2 to v6 reminded me of a salesmen showing me the benefits at the PC store in the local student union. I told him, "I’ll stick with Ami Pro 3.1, thank you very much!"

  7. Anonymous says:

    Jensen, why were the Mac versions of Word also included? Also in any future series, will we here anything about native support for Windows x64 with Office 12?

  8. jensenh says:

    Andre: not sure I understand your comment about the Mac versions. The screenshots I show are all Windows versions. Is it that you would like to see a discussion of Mac Word versions?

    On x64: nothing to announce, but I run Windows x64 Edition at home and there’s a lot of x64 software I’d like to see. Macromedia Flash would be high on my list and would enable me to use the 64-bit browser more…

  9. Mr. Dee says:

    Sorry Jensen, I messed that one up. I meant, why didn’t you also include the Mac versions of Word in a your history tutorial? Or was the Office Mac BU formed from the very beginning? Also, why wasn’t the version of Word from 1983 included in the history tutorial? Word existed before 1989. Before Microsoft Word was renamed just Word, wasn’t it called Multi-Tool Word for a short time which was then renamed Microsoft Word for DOS 1.x?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Chris Pratley’s article about the development of MS Word is absolutely fascinating. I noted a comment that the makers of Wordstar lost their source code! The commenter said it was a sorcecode control problem. I found a usenet post that said a disgruntled employee deleted it! I think I might wiz home & check my backup CDs …

  11. Anonymous says:

    Looking through the screenshots it seems that some of the icons still used in Windows today were around since Windows 3.1 if not even earlier. I’m still hoping someone at Microsoft will decide to replace the remaining old icons, they really don’t look good considering that now our monitors can handle much more.

  12. jensenh says:

    Why no DOS and Mac pics? My intent was to show the evolution of Office on Windows, so I skipped the evolution on other platforms particularly those (DOS) which would have very little impact on today’s product.

    To the person on another forum who said I "doctored" the screenshots because there are anti-aliased fonts in them, I assumed it would be obvious that I added the text in the middle of the document in a paint program later. Obvious because I left the "end of document" mark right there at the top of the picture. 🙂

  13. Maybe DOS is less relevant to today’s discussion, but comparing Word 5.0 to Word 5.5 for DOS shows a lot more about the evolution of UI than any of the Windows builds.

    I still have a copy of Office 1.x. Although the screenshot of Word 1.x here is running on Windows 3.x, to get the authentic ‘feel’ you need to screenshot on Windows 2.x. It ‘officially’ required 2.11, but was version stamped 2.03 (and worked fine on 2.03 for me.) Note the bitmap used for the pretend-MDI document window – it’s the 2.x control button! I remember running Word and noting its 83k of free memory 🙂 It never required Windows/386, although I guess it would have worked better on that platform.

    And as far as Win64 – I want to see more Win64 software too 🙂

  14. Anonymous says:

    "The truth is, there are tons of different Office work styles out there. With hundreds of millions of users, you’re going to find that a lot of people do a lot of different things.

    The UI has to be flexible and enable all these ways of working. "

    Fair enough. So how do I turn the ribbon off? I want the screen estate for me and my productivity. Put another way, to me Office 12 is not a good upgrade as I’ll get stolen more time by a stupid application that tries to assist me or think for me : that’s all fine, IF I HAVE OPTED-IN in the first place, or if I can opt-out.

    Something else that may be will get improved, at least hopefully, is the bottom page side effect. You know, when you type words for a fair amount of time, you inevitably reach the bottom of the page, and then suddenly Word becomes not intuitive anymore : 1) the bottom line is partially truncated 2) typing stuff in the bottom of a page does not feel great, you get the feel you are stuck into a corner, and consequently you end up using adding a bunch of blank lines below that and then use the scrollbar to move the view so your current text is in the middle or something. Only to have to do that again a few minutes after that when you inevitably reach the bottom again. And again, and again.

  15. jensenh says:

    How to turn the Ribbon off? Double-click the selected tab and it closes, leaving the whole screen devoted to typing.

  16. Jeff Parker says:

    LOL Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I remember these times well. However one thing, back in the 486 days and the beginings of the pentiums, you know what us people out in the field used to use a benchmark for CPU speed tests. The Microsoft Word Splash screen. On a 486 with turbo on and 64 megs ram, you could load from the time you first seen the splash screen to the time the application actually started was about 11-12 seconds. I remember when we got the first pentium in there and it loaded it in 8 seconds. We were all amazed. But thats the story of how we used to actually reliably bench test a computer, by the old word splash screen time

  17. Anonymous says:

    When using a tabbed browser like firefox and having the screenshots open in several tabs: it’s nice to see that even the word 97 toolbars would fit into a 640×480 window; what’s the necessary screen size for word 12?

  18. Anonymous says:

    anon, good point about the bottom-of-page effect. I’d like to see a solution for that, too. I’m sure it’s not an easy thing to get right, though, b/c it will have to scroll up the stuff you’ve already written, and a lot of people probably need that in their workflows.

  19. Anonymous says:

    One thing I find interesting about this: I’ve been using every version of Word since 2.0, and every version of Office since 4, as well as Mac versions of Word and Excel back to 4 …

    I knew "Ribbon" as soon as I heard it, because it debuted on the Mac side.

    But I swear I remember that Word 6.0 had the red squigglies for misspellings, as well as a rudimentary AutoCorrect. (It was also dog-slow on the 386 with Windows 3.1 I was running it on!) I also swear that Microsoft did offer a 32-bit version of Word 6.0, built for NT 3.1, which was Word 6 + long filenames. (They offered me a sidegrade for $29 when I’d first gotten Windows 95 on my Pentium.)

    So what did Office 95 really bring to people like me? I seem to remember the big improvements being all UI-related.

    BTW, I applaud the work you guys are doing in Office 12. There are probably a LOT of naysayers telling you that "it sucks," or whatever. Honestly, I think it’s ballsy of Microsoft to abandon a decades-old metaphor for something that may work better — especially if your usability labs are already bearing fruit in that direction.

    (And this is coming from a seriously multi-platform guy … )

  20. Anonymous says:

    It’s all very well talking about the UI and the number of items on the menu and the number of items on the toolbar, but what I’d like to know is why with all this feature creep have the bugs that affect my working day, everyday never been fixed??

    I am a document specialist with 10 years experience of large blue chip corporates who use word to produce a vast amount of reports and pitchbooks, many going to clients – why is it, even in 2005 that numbered and bulleted lists are still flaky in their consistency? why do I still have the same complaint about using Word, that it just fails to format the document the way I want it to, instead arbitrarily reformatting my text.

    I am an expert user, and much of my time is spent salvaging the documents that word has arbitrarily devastated because it cannot do something as simple as formatting the document the way that my templates have been set up.

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