Saddle Up to the MiniBar

Yesterday, I talked about "command loops," in which commands not available at the
same time in a modal user interface can cause frustration or reduced efficiency
due the mode switch required to access both of them.

When we looked closely at the command loops people were experiencing in our
early Office 12 prototypes, almost all of them were related to text formatting. 
Someone would be creating a caption or a footnote or a comment and they wanted a
simple way to access the Bold button with the mouse.  (If you use the
keyboard to access bold, there is no command loop because keyboard shortcuts are
inherently modeless.)

Out of the search for a solution to this problem was born the MiniBar. 
(If you've heard the term "Floatie" before, the MiniBar is the same thing. 
"Floatie" was our internal name for what we're now calling the "MiniBar." 
Aren't names fun?)

At Microsoft, we've been using a UI mechanism we call "on-object UI" for a
couple of years.  For instance, when Word AutoCorrects your
capitalization or spelling in Office 2003, a little tag shows up around the word that was corrected. 
If you click on it, a menu pops down inviting you to undo the correction or to
turn off AutoCorrection altogether.

(A form of on-object UI in Word 2003)

This has been a moderately successful mechanism at exposing people to features
they wouldn't normally see.  But the MiniBar had a more ambitious goal: try
to use the
concepts behind on-object UI to improve the efficiency of mouse users. 
Whereas most of our current on-object UI exposes fairly obscure or hard-to-find
features, the MiniBar provides
access to the formatting commands people use the most.

When you select text in Office 12, the MiniBar appears "ghosted" above the text
you selected.  If you move closer to the MiniBar, it fades in and becomes a
miniature toolbar you can use to apply Bold, Italic, Font Size, Color, etc. 
As you move the pointer away from the edge of the MiniBar, it fades away to
nothing.  So, if you don't want to use the MiniBar on selection, just move
your cursor a few pixels away and it dismisses.

Here's a little movie I made that demonstrates the MiniBar in action:

(Click to view
movie - Windows Media Format, 982 KB)

(You can also download the
1.2 MB high
quality movie
, but you'll have to have the free
VMWare Movie Decoder

The MiniBar is designed to reduce the amount your mouse has to travel around
the screen by allowing on-object tweaks to formatting.  At the same time,
we wanted to make sure that it's not annoying by designing it to be incredibly shy and
easy to dismiss.  In fact, our current feedback shows that the MiniBar is
actually too shy, and we need to dial back the dismiss behavior a little
bit to strike the right balance between predictability, ease-of-use, and annoyance.

We also know there are "selection readers" out there.  (I'm one of
them.)  Selection readers are just what they sound like: people who select text
in a document as they read it.  Maybe it's a kind of nervous habit. 
For me, I think I do it to kind of help me keep my place in the document. 
Regardless, we knew that the MiniBar would fail if it annoyed the "selection
readers", and we've gone out of our way to try to make it undisruptive.

Of course, if you think having the MiniBar come up on selection would annoy you no matter what, you can turn it
off.  We've added the MiniBar to the top of context menus as well, so you
can turn off the on-object MiniBar and still only be a right-click away from top
formatting commands.  But most people who have used it, including those who
were initially very skeptical of the concept, have come around to make it a
major part of the way they work.

I do love the thing and it drives me crazy not to have it when I'm using earlier versions of Office.

Comments (60)

  1. It’d be nice if the "shyness" of minibar could be controlled by parameters. While I haven’t used the application yet (still waiting for beta application to be accepted), what the video showed looked fine to me in regard to "shyness". I don’t want things like this annoying me or other powerusers to death, because you’re trying to exclusively accomodate the drooling-mouth type of secretaries. So in case you’re going to reduce the shyness, please allow users to increase it again.


  2. John Topley says:

    I’m sorry, but I can’t take the name MiniBar seriously. A MiniBar is what I reach into in a hotel room when I want a Gin & Tonic!

  3. On an unrelated topic, I saw this a while back and just got around to digging up the URL because I wondered if anyone involved in the Office UI group had thought about this.

    I love a lot of what you’re doing with the UI (the ribbon, dialog launchers and minibar all look like great innovations), but he has a good point. I don’t *want* to type a heading, change the font, change the color, make it bold, make it italic, and increase the size, and then repeat the same five steps for every other heading I create in a document. I want to say "make a heading" and have it automatically get the right style.

    Okay, I myself know how to do that, but I’m an advanced user (It’s fairly laborious anyway, the style dialog is hardly intuitive or convenient). 99% of people who write documents are going to repeat the five steps.

    With all the work you’ve done on figuring out how to get users to quickly move towards the "most important" UI elements, I’m sure you could find ways to drive them towards using the "semantic" styling operations instead of straight to the font dropdown. Or if you notice someone creating the same combined set of formatting over and over, make it easy to associate that with a style, either one of the predefined ones or a new one. As well as being good for theoretical, abstract "semanticness" (which I *do* care about but users probably don’t) this would also be a huge productivity booster because it allows what was a multi-step process to become a two-click process thereafter.

  4. Jonathan West MVP says:

    At the moment, you are showing the minibar just with direct formatting. That’s fine, but there are cases where that’s not what is needed. For instance, if a document has been protected so that direct formatting is not permitted, the minibar is not going to have all that many useful commands on it!

    So, I hope that the minibar will be customizable when designing a template, at the very least to the point of us being able to add buttons for applying styles, and preferably to allow any kind of control (e.g. to insert AutoText or run a macro) to be on the minibar. This will make it a whole lot easier for template designers to produce easy-to-use templates that implement a company brand image.

  5. Rick Scott says:

    This new MiniBar looks interesting, as did the SmartTag (on-object UI). But all 3 things are basically the same: different context menus.

    The current context menu contains links to some things that are rarely used (the paragraph menu?).

    A better approach to all this might be to incorporate cut/copy/paste and bold/italics/align *and* context sensitive options into the right-click menu.

    Betty Joe in the office that hasn’t used a computer before can easily be told that almost everything she could want will happen if she uses the right-side mouse button.

    As it is, the complexity is increasing. Now there are going to be THREE context menues, all accessed differently? I’m a developer (and ergo an ‘advanced user’) and I’m already going to be confused about right click versus smart tag versus tooltip options versus mini bar.

    What about just making a REALLY good context menu?

  6. zz says:

    Thanks Jensen for thinking about us the selection readers! This looks great.

    On a side note, I probably would recommend you host this video on Channel 9. I’m not sure how resilent maybe to the slashdot effect.

  7. "Okay, I myself know how to do that, but I’m an advanced user (It’s fairly laborious anyway, the style dialog is hardly intuitive or convenient). 99% of people who write documents are going to repeat the five steps."

    I have to chime in here for a slight comment. Of those 99% of generic users, maybe 5% will get the idea behind this, and also only if you explicitely teach them about it. The other 94% will be without a clue, no matter what you try. And if some of them use it, they’ll dismiss it very soon. That’s my experience I had with secretaries and alike.

  8. Rick Scott says:

    "I have to chime in here for a slight comment. Of those 99% of generic users, maybe 5% will get the idea behind this, and also only if you explicitely teach them about it. The other 94% will be without a clue, no matter what you try."

    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.

    You could find 2-3 of the most common formatting options (make heading, make footnote?…whatever usabaility labs tells you are the most common things to do) and provide reasonable defaults.

    Like 2-3 built-in yet customizable macros with common defaults.

  9. Mr. Dee says:

    Could you also have Drop Caps on the Mini Bar too? Its a very productive feature and its not in your way. I can’t wait to try this out.

  10. Templates? says:

    It would be great to have a template selector on the minibar. As it is now, it just encourages users to manually format every heading instead of learning how to use format templates properly.

  11. Thomas Tallyce says:

    I would concur with the point made by Stuart Ballard above – that Word *really* needs to make Styles more usable and more obvious so that it can start to become the default mechanism for adding styling rather than the complex, hidden-away one.

    It takes me about an hour or two to teach colleagues how to use styles properly, after which they never go back to using the old-fashioned font/font-size/etc method. When using styles, the quality of their work is substantially improved.

    What plans do the Office12 team have for improving the styles mechanism and bringing it to the fore?

  12. boxmonkey says:

    I’m glad you are keeping selection readers in mind. I actually thought I might be the only one. Selection reading does 2 things: It keeps my place (which is good because I am frequently interrupted, AND I multitask, so I am often switching to other windows), and it’s also high-contrast, and easier to read, especially if there’s some kind of annoying background on a page.

    A couple of otherwise cool sites have made me abandon them because they have enacted measures to prevent users from selecting text, i.e. by placing all text in a SWF file. They think this will protect their copyright material, but all it does is frustrate people.

  13. Frank says:

    As a UI feature, the MiniBar sounds good. I just wish that you incorporated STYLES in its content.

    Given a large corpus of texts, maintaining a consistent set of formatting is incredibly important. Allowing people to just embolden this or that, or change a typeface here and there detracts from the consistent style.

    While plopping these random formatting elements is fine for cutsie little documents, Word still has a ways to go before I consider it a professional documentation system.

    Setting up a set of styles in a template and adhering to those styles is the best way that I have been able to find to use Word in a professional manner. With the MiniBar just floating around tempting you to click on random formatting, that discipline is lost. We end up with 100 documents with 100 different styles. Then, what happens when the the company wishes to change its formatting across all documents? Out of luck I guess.

    Put simply, why not put styles on the MiniBar?

    30 year-old TeX is still an improvement over Word.

  14. X says:

    Is there a way to access the on-object menu with keyboard-only?

  15. David Harrison says:

    I agree with Frank as well – please put styles in the MiniBar, and consider how to improve the usability of styles. Word’s deemphasis on styles means that many users spend more effort formatting documents than they need to. True, the presence of Styles in the task panes in Word 2002/2003 has helped a bit – but the styles support is still much less direct and intuitive than Ami Pro circa 1992.

  16. jensenh says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    The actual content of the MiniBar is still being finalized–styles is something we’ve received a lot of feedback people would like to see in Word.

    We’ve also heard that people would like to customize it to put their own commands on it, and that’s something we’re considering as well, although it won’t be in beta 1.

    On "only 5% will ever discover it." Not really what we’ve seen in the lab so far, although we have seen people who have exclusively used the right-click version.

  17. sgim says:

    I think the MiniBar is going to be a wonderful addition for tablet pc users like myself. Many formatting abilities will be close to the pen tip so we won’t have to travel the screen for these features. I’m also a selection reader, especially in tablet mode, so let’s hope the MiniBar is somewhat out of the way.

    You can find me here:

  18. Weevil says:

    Glad to hear that customisation is being ‘considered’. Given the freedom we currently have to tweak toolbars, menus, etc, I think it would be *extremely* frustrating to be locked into the factory settings.

  19. PatriotB says:

    Here I thought I was strange for selecting text as I read — now I find out its a common practice and that there’s tons of other "selection readers" out there.

    I agree with boxmonkey — web pages where you can’t select text irritate me to no end. Also bad are those pages where you select but IE messes up the selection (e.g. selects the entire page).

  20. orcmid says:

    The minibar looks great, and I agree with sqim about the value on a Tablet PC.

    And the new little widgies that stick to my screen in Office 2003 make me crazy. They won’t go away, and I can’t see the cursor underneath where I’m trying to work. The one that gags me the most is the clipboard paste one. Also, the blinkety-blink "Use Ctrl+click to follow a hyperlink" (in FrontPage 2003) won’t let me put the cursor in the URL that I want to edit. I have to sneak in from the edge using the arrow keys. Gahh.

    How do I turn that stuff off? I don’t need any of it.

  21. ooh says:

    Love the aqua-like interface! Did you guys invent that too?

  22. Rob says:

    I don’t know why you guys insist on putting so much stuff right in the face of your users. Why not design Office to get out of the way and let them work? The "smart" tags in Word annoy me to no end, especially the little auto-correct blue underline/smart tag that you CAN’T TURN OFF. The MiniBar sounds like it will be another huge annoyance, something like the Paper Clip that will pop up exactly when I don’t want it.

  23. Step says:

    Looks good from the video. I’ll add my voice asking for much better styles usability – I’m sure you’re working on it.

    I also want to second orcmid (and others), those "smart tags" are pretty much horrible. They seem like a good idea, and I want them to work, but most of the time they just seem to always be in the way, and yet be difficult to hit (too small, perhaps? Fitt’s Law, and all). I hope that isn’t the case for the MiniBar. It does sound like you’ve had better results in the labs.

  24. jensenh says:

    The anti-smart tags comments are not unexpected. One could make the argument (as Step did) that they’re not small enough not to be annoying and not big enough that they’re easy to hit.

    I think you’ll find the MiniBar to be a different kind of UI. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you’ll turn it off, but it should be evaluated on its own merits once you have a build to play with it.

    It was designed and developed by people with a strong distrust of "automatic" UI, so the values you have about wanting it to be out of the way and not annoying and easy to hit when you want it are all the goals we have in mind.

    We continue to tweak its behavior based on what we learn in the lab and anecdotally through our feedback channels. There are a large number of different settings we can tweak to try to get its "organic" behavior to feel right.

  25. jensenh says:

    On styles usability in Word, I have it on good authority that one of my colleagues in Word is going to be starting a blog and writing on this exact subject soon…

  26. David Candy says:

    I’ll make several comments.

    1. In ver 6 and 7 the reason why commands were unavailable was explained in the status bar when selected. EG You can’t use a table command because no table is selected when one has not correctly selected something in a table. In 8 this was moved to the Shift + F1 help. This was a very bad idea. PS Tog, the Mac UI designer, agrees with me.

    2. Since right clicking came in (in ver 6 I think – before it was in windows itself) I have found I don’t really use toolbars much. As I write this I look at IE’s toolbar – Refresh is the only button I ever use. As I only use Open in New Window for all links I don’t use Back/Forward. Again in IE the only UI helper minibar thingy I use is to make pictures the correct size.

    3. The most annoying thing about office is doing logos and the like and not being able to save drawings as wmf or emf.

    4. I can’t use current versions of office. 2000 is the last version I can use. It’s so helpful I can’t use it. I have 95/97/2000 (and 5 for Dos) installed. The final straw was the office clipboard toolbar and turning it off three times to trigger something. I realised then the program cannot be predicted and thus can’t be trusted.

    5. Word is a fine DTP program. However one needs a rigerous enforcement of styles to do top level output (filling space etc). Like with html the programs (all programs) conspire to force direct formatting.

    6. Word seems to be unfriendly to some groups. For instance Harvard citers gets zip, nothing, not even a mention while fottnoters and endnoters get 30 million features. Likewise the inbuilt styles are not only ugly but don’t support style guides like Australian Govt Style Guide (and I’m sure many others). In two out of three higher education facility I’ve attended Harvard/Aus Govt was required and Chicargo in the other.

  27. Headtoadie says:

    Lots of good discussions here on Styles. I hope that in the O12 that it is more intuitive to set defaults for styles. As it is now you have to create a book.xlt or with you default styles in order to have them in all new workbooks/documents.

    I would guess that less than 1 in 1000 users now understand how to accomplish this.

  28. Sebhelyesfarku says:

    New features are fine but the interface must be so simple that even Jessica Simpson with her brain of a moth can understand and use it.

  29. Helen says:

    All of the new features that you’ve described until now are geared towards mouse users. Please please tell us more about how the new version will work from a keyboard user’s point of view.

    I use the keyboard for 95% of what I do in Word. I use the keyboard for formatting and applying styles (Ctrl + Shift + F to change font, Ctrl + Shift + S to apply a style), and for navigating menus.

    The only things that I do regularly, and still use the mouse for, are:

    * correcting spelling errors (because the right-click menu is by far the easiest way to access suggested corrections, and there are no access keys for the suggestions);

    * selection and navigation.

    The last one will probably always remain mouse-driven, because that’s what the mouse is good for. But I would love to see better keyboard access to the former.

  30. Bronwyn says:

    Tally up my votes for semantics not formatting, styles in the minibar, and a customizable minibar!

    If I’m writing a document that’s more than one page, I start by figuring out what semantic styles I need, and then creating them. I got the habit from handcoding XHTML + CSS.

    But Word still shoots itself in the kneecaps even with all that care and forethought. See <a href="">Structure and Presentation</a>.

  31. Bronwyn says:

    Alright, here’s the link again for my Structure and Presentation post:

  32. Fox Cutter says:

    The more I see of Office 12 the pleased I am with what you have done. Every UI change I’ve seen has made sense. Watching the videos in action I just get it. You guys have done a lot of good things here.

    I’m actually planing to get this version of Office (the last one I got was 97 :). Heck I didn’t even get the version of office I worked on, so this says a lot about obvious of an improvement this is.

  33. I wanted to drop in a vote for Smart Tags: I’m a big fan because of having the most useful options within easy mouse reach and I’m hoping the MiniBar will be more of the same. Are you using the same kind of research for what to put on the MiniBar as you did for picking what goes on the tabs (if 80% of common clicks are on the first tab will you aim for 80% of clicks when text is selected on the Floatie?)

  34. Question…

    In the video, when the line is selected, the whitespace after the second word is also selected. Why is this?

    Sometimes when a bullited list is on the next line, you press [delete] or something and the bullited list is removed from its first item. It kind of sucks having this.

    An example: I get an email from some site that I have registered there. One year later, I open the email and double-click and copy the password from it, because I had forgotten it, or it’s something like hdKI6s@kj. But the whitespace behind it (which is actually not even there, but a linebreak is) gets selected as well, and is copy-n-pasted into the password field. You get the idea what the response of the website will be. 🙂

    As I know this won’t be changed because I requested it, I just want to know why this is how it is? Why is the last whitespace-character also selected, even if it’s not even a regular space!

  35. Thomas Tallyce says:

    > On styles usability in Word, I have it on good authority that one of my colleagues in Word is going to be starting a blog and writing on this exact subject soon…

    Excellent. Please do post the URL in a new posting when this happens.

    One of the problems with the styles implementation in OfficeXP and earlier is that is just not very discoverable. By default, the styles box in the top-left has the text "Normal" in it. What does that mean to a general (dare I say "normal"!) user? Furthermore, the term normal clashes with the "normal" template.

    Suppose this was called Normal Paragraph Text or something like that, it would at least give users some idea of what that box is for. Even better would be some sort of associated text label next to it, called "Headings and styles" or something. I realise the toolbars/ribbon tries to avoid textual labels but I can’t see how else you can do this with such a control, as it’s simply not obvious otherwise to normal users.

    Perhaps instead there will be a "styles" bit of the ribbon. Furthermore, there could be a button like "use headings/styles mode" on the nasty formatting bar.

    "Styles" itself is not a particularly good name. "Headings/styles" is arguably better, because I suspect most users of styles will visualise most of their use of this as changing headings and the main paragraph text only. While of course one can set all manner of page elements (footer, etc) to using styles, headings and the main paragraph text are what most people are likely to use, not least as these are set in the default pull-down box. So including the word "headings" in the title would make this further discoverable.

    Anyway, just some ideas to throw in for consideration. I realise they’re not well-developed, but that’s not my job 🙂

  36. Alexander Lezos says:

    The MiniBar sounds and looks very handy. But i don’t see a "styles drop down" in there. For people who use styles to write their documents the minibar will be useless without it. 🙁

  37. Klaus Linke says:

    Talking more about modes:

    — Setting up a document (styles definitions, page and section setup, headers and footers, …) and actual writing could be two entirely different modes. One thing I’d hope for is that I can customize Word along those lines.

    — Styles and manual formatting should be two entirely separate modes of working with Word.

    A document completely formatted in styles is great and easy to maintain/repurpose. A document that is completely manually formatted could be great too, if the formatting could be 100% consistent (of which there is hardly any chance). But a mixture of manual formatting and styles is a nightmare, and it also is the standard today for most Word documents.

    Instead of some last-minute fixes like adding a styles dropdown, or promote/demote buttons, to the MiniBar, there should be a mode to completely ban all manual formatting (font, size, alignment…) from the interface. Or at least, again, I’d hope to be able to customize Word that way. A mixture of styles and manual formatting, which is what the last versions of Word encouraged, is really not what we want and need.

  38. epoxymoose says:

    The Office 12 UI looks fairly promising to me. I’m looking forward to trying it out with my own two hands.

    There’s one thing I’d like to see specifically addressed, and I hope an insider can chime in with some info. I’m a keyboard user; I go for long periods of time without using the mouse. In many applications, things that pop up automatically and respond to mouse cursor position never go away if the mouse happens to be too close to them. I’m concerned that the MiniBar will stay in place if it happens to appear underneath my (unused) mouse cursor. One thing that really steams my pork buns is having to stop what I’m doing to move the mouse cursor so some ill-informed popup goes away.

    I’d also like to see a way to pop up and navigate the MiniBar from the keyboard, but that’s secondary.

  39. Lachlan Hunt says:

    Yikes! That looks like a huge step backwards for MS Word. Formatting options is the last thing I wanted to see made more accessible wherever I click.

    I was impressed by Office XPs Styles and Formatting task pane, that allowed me to specify semantic conceps, be they headings, paragraphs, lists, code samples, emphasis, or whatever and have all the formatting be one click away for whatever I needed.

    I thought, at last, Word if finally starting to move away from the presentation-based authoring environment that plagues most WYSIWYG editors into a more semantic and usable app; but now that your making all those essentially useless and bloated presentational buttons (most of which I remove from the toolbar immediately these days), it’s a huge step backwards.

    Please, let the user focus on the content, the meaning of the content and the structure of the content! Let the templates/style sheets worry about how it all looks!

  40. Semantic document structure. Semantic document structure. Semantic document structure.

    Office’s UI guides the way its users think. If you can construct an interface that makes semantic markup the "default" choice, and buries the formatting or moves it somewhere less convenient, you can nudge users towards a more effective document structure – a structure that is ultimately less frustrating.

    Lachlan – well put!

  41. Richard says:

    Post another vote for style and customisability.

    It would be good to see some of these different mechanisms merged (or at least rationalised).

    E.g. I can access the right cliock menu with the context menu key (on most post-Win95 keyboards) and the smart tag via shift-alt-F10. Why not offer all the context together?

    E.g. In Word 2003, using change markup I loose access to the restart numbering if on a numbered paragraph; just get the options about accept/reject change. Would be much better to get the options merged, so I see the "number paragraph" and "marked change" options together.

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