Combating the Perception of Bloat (Why the UI, Part 3)

This is the third 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 the last installments here:
Part 1 
Part 2.

Last week
we started a walk down memory lane by taking a look at the first five major
versions of Word for Windows.  I ended by showing Word 97, a major
milestone release which included many useful new features and improvements. 
Office 97 also introduced

command bars
, a paradigm in which menus and toolbars were made more similar
in capability and visual design.  All this new functionality came at a
cost, however, and part of this cost was increased complexity in the user
interface, mainly through the addition of new menu items and toolbar buttons. 
Responding to this, the industry press started publishing articles and
popularizing the idea that Office was "bloated."

In reality, the programs themselves weren't "bloated."  At least, the
miles-long list of feature requests from customers indicated that, if anything,
people expected us to do more in this space.  What had happened, however,
was that the user interface had begun to feel bloated.  Like a suitcase
stuffed to the gills with vacation clothes, the menu and toolbar system was
beginning to show signs of not being scalable enough to fit the richness of the
product.  It was becoming harder to get the zipper shut each release.  Some people
perceived the result as "bloat."

Office 2000 introduced several new UI mechanisms designed to reduce this
perception of "bloat."  In many ways, this release marks the beginning of
the road that eventually turns towards the redesign of the UI in Office 12.

(Click to view full picture)

The first new mechanism, called "Adaptive Menus" or, later, "Personalized Menus"
were an attempt to make the top-level menus appear shorter by showing the most
popular items first.  After a few seconds (or after pushing a
chevron at the bottom of the
menu) the menu expanded to show the full contents.  As you used the menus,
items you used often were promoted to the "short" menu and items you never used
were demoted to the "long" menu.  This was the adaptive part, and the idea
was that eventually you'd have a fully-tuned, auto-customized UI that would show
you only what you need and use.

(Click to view full picture)

Adaptive Menus were not successful.  In my opinion, they actually add
complexity to the interface.  Why?  Several reasons:

  • There was no way to get the default "short" menu right.  Although
    conventional wisdom holds that "everyone only uses the same few features in
    Office," the reality is that people use an amazingly wide range of
    functionality.  So, one person's ideal default "short" menu was exactly
    the wrong thing for someone else.

  • Once the default short menu was wrong, the user was forced to scan the
    menu.  However, scanning adaptive menus requires two passes: scan the
    short menu, press the chevron, then back to the top to scan the long menu. 
    Because the secondary menu items could appear between short menu items, the
    appearance of the long menu caused your scan to reset.  As a result,
    scanning menus took twice as long  Even if they had designed it so that
    pushing the chevron revealed the bottom part of the menu (and the top part
    didn't change), at least you'd only have to scan the menu once.  So,
    adaptive menus added a lot of inefficiency.

  • Auto-customization, unless it does a perfect job, is usually worse than
    no customization at all.  Although the algorithm used to promote and
    demote menu items is rather complex and well thought-out, it's not perfect. 
    Because it's not perfect, it does the wrong thing a lot of the time. 
    (If it's even clear what a "right thing" is for a feature like this.) 
    What people experienced is a sense randomness and unpredictability: one
    time, a menu item would be in a certain place, and then two days later it
    wasn't there anymore.

The other new mechanism in Office 2000 designed to reduce the perception of
bloat was "rafted toolbars."  In this design, two or more toolbars could
share a line on the screen.  By default the Standard and Formatting
toolbars were "rafted" together onto the same row.  As there wasn't space
on most monitors for both toolbars, a complex algorithm decided which toolbar
buttons were least likely to be used and those were moved from the toolbar into
an overflow area at the end.  Just like with adaptive menus, as you used
the toolbars, buttons were promoted and demoted from the toolbar and moved
to/from the overflow area.

(Click to view full picture)

The rafted toolbars add complexity for the same reason as the adaptive menus
do.  The order of commands was no longer constant, scanning for
functionality was inefficient, and predictability suffered as nothing could ever
be guaranteed to be in the same place even from click to click.

The result: most customers, especially those in corporate environments, turn
both of these features off.

So, if these mechanisms were so flawed, why were they introduced into the
product in the first place?

First, remember that we're analyzing this with 20/20 hindsight.  As
computers got more powerful, there was a lot of excitement (not just at
Microsoft) about "auto-customization" and using the power of the computer to
present exactly the right UI for the person at hand.  Now, it's easy to say
that today people are generally against this idea because it seems to cause
unpredictability, but we know that mainly through trying experiments such as the
adaptive UI in Office 2000.

But the second, more important piece is that the people who worked on these
mechanisms were working within a very narrow set of requirements.  Office
was known at the time for being very conservative about the user interface; as I discussed
last time, until Office 12, the top-level menu structure of Word hasn't changed
since 1989.  This consistency was a good thing in many customer's minds,
because an unchanged UI meant virtually no retraining costs.

Whatever enhancements were designed had to be done within the confines of
not changing the structure of the UI.  This means that, if you want to have
short and long menus, you have to make the long menu items show up
in-place--otherwise you're changing the order of well-known menu items (which
would have been a non-starter.)

Similarly with the rafted toolbars, there's only so much you can do to make
the toolbars simpler if you can't change the core contents of the Standard and
Formatting toolbars.

So, it's not as if we're somehow smarter than the people who worked on the
Office 2000 UI.  (In fact, some of the biggest supporters of the Office 12
UI today are people who worked on and taught us what they learned from these
earlier versions.)  They had to try to reduce the perception of bloat--to
combat the fullness of the menus and toolbars--without changing the actual contents of the menus and toolbars. 
It was kind of like when I was told to clean my room as a kid and I just hid
everything under the bed.  It looks good on first blush (and on the back of
the box), but the facade doesn't hold up for long.

In the end analysis, we didn't end up making the suitcase any bigger or
the zipper any easier to close--we just added more pockets.

Next week, we'll take a detour into one of the special exhibits at
Ye Olde
Museum of Office Past
: the "Office Assistant" wing.

Comments (23)
  1. Anonymous says:

    As an instructor, when teaching Office 2000 or XP, one of the first things that I always did in nearly every class is to show them how to turn off adaptive menus and toolbars. (After a brief into on how the feature worked if they encountered it back at their office)

    For classroom training, you MUST have consistency. This trumps any attempt at perceived usability advantage, which really only appears after using the application for a while (if it ever does).

    For whatever this is worth, I always felt *guilty* about turning this feature off on my own PC, because I knew that I *should* be using the adaptive menus and toolbars.

    This probably ends of being one of those features that people say "This feature would be great for you on YOUR computer, but I don’t want it on MY computer."

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well, there must be several other aspects of "perception of bloated" because adaptive menus are not the only thing I despise with the UI : 1) startup-time is big (and sure enough, the 32-bit picture you are adding in the UI are going to make it worse, unless you guys wrote a really really really smart pic loader) 2) vector shape UI goes all over the place, objects jump when they are selected,etc. : in comparison Office 97 is soooooooooooo great.

    Did I say I love Office 97?

  3. Anonymous says:

    And for those of you wondering, here’s how to turn off IntelliMenus:

    Choose "customize" in the "tools" menu

    Click the "options" tab

    check "Always show full menus"

    You also might want to turn off the annoying behavior of Office documents loading in the browser when viewed from a web site:,guid,b6d6cdba-4b86-439a-a373-8a1cb8a58bca.aspx

    (It’s kind of sad when you think about the amount of effort that went into coding these features that people actually hate. Imagine what Office could be if more of the effort was towards useful and desireable features…)

  4. tlmii says:

    Dave – your last comment implies that the features you mention are not useful or desirable. Just because they are not to you, doesnt’ mean they aren’t to ANYBODY.

    In fact, the Personalized menus are one of my favorite features of recent office version (along with smart tags). I use very little of Office – mostly just some quick spreadsheets or a simple document or two. So the menus stripping out things i never use is very useful to me. I doubt i’m alone.

    I’m glad MS put effort into these features, and i’m sure others are as well – just as i am glad that they are continuing to put effort into new features (ribbon, minibar, etc).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Adobe Photoshop CS2 has a slightly different approach to personalizing menus – you can easily tick off any menu items you don’t need, or you can choose from predefined sets based on your usage type. You can also choose to highlight certain menu items (e.g. just highlight the features you use frequently without removing the others). You can switch back and forth between different sets very quickly. In a way, this provides the advantages of personalized menus without the arbitrariness of having an algorithm decide which items to show.

  6. Mr. Dee says:

    Personalized Menus does have its Advantages and disadvantages. For me, it just was not intelligent enough and seemed to to hide the wrong things, it has improved over time though and I must give it credit for that. But I just like seeing all my menus anyway, but that won’t be a issue in certain core apps in Office 12, it will just be there when you need it. I think the reason why Office got the bloat name was, the displays were still small and the resolutions were 800*600 Office was adding more features, and with personalized menus Office 2k, it was just apparent that Office seemed like it had a bit too much.

  7. Anonymous says:

    New Office 12 Blog is up about PDF, By Cyndy Wessling:

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi, great blog. The new UI looks like it will be a good improvement. One thing I might disagree on is the idea of bloat. For me, the features on the screen is not what I perceive as bloat. Those can always be turned off individually if I don’t want them. For me, the long load time is my first negative perception. I hope that will somehow be improved in this new version. The second is slow responsiveness from the application. My brain tells me, if an application is slow, it is bloated. The final reason I view office applications as bloated is they kill my battery life. Just letting Word sit idol on my laptop, in the background, kills its battery life by about 30%. I hope the new version is not any worse than Office 2003, but I have my doubts. 😉

  9. Anonymous says:

    Another problem with adaptive menus was that they applied to the whole Office suite. What if you wanted them in Word but not in Access? Or when working on doc #1, but not on doc #2?

    I believe such things should have a seperate setting for each Office app (Word, Access etc.) – or even for each Office app /document/.

    Take autocorrect as another example. I really do not appreciate MS Access performing automatic spelling correction on my end-user’s product codes! Autocorrect might be useful in one Access database, but completely disruptive in another. Again, a single setting does not necessarly make sense across all Office apps & documents.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure why everyone is complaining about the load time. On my old P3 1GHz, Word starts within a second or so. And to the person complaining about 32-bit pictures, I just want to say that it’s 2005, not 1995 anymore.

  11. Load times are highly variable and dependent on a few different factors. On a relatively clean machine Word2003 wil start in about a second on even a 500Mhz machine. If you have even one add-in installed (a common one is Adobe’s Acrobat add-in, or a blogging add-in, or whatever), the add-in will force VBA to load as well, which can add several seconds to Word’s start-up time. If you have low RAM, or you have loaded a lot of apps, some of that stuff has to be swapped out of RAM before Word can be loaded so that can double the start time since the swapping hits the hard disk on the way out as well as to load Word. One cool thing about Windows Vista is that it can learn what you tend to do and optimize the launch time for apps you start often. That will reduce boot time for Word and other apps if you use them at least once in awhile by predictively pre-loading critical parts of the app. There are also improvements in the memory management where typically if you are short on RAM, the oldest page of memory is swapped out to make room, but that page may be the first one needed when you switch back to an application which means you have to wait for the hard disk again just to switch apps.

  12. Anonymous says:

    At the mere mention of the ‘office assistant’ you should expect torches, pitchforks & angry mobs waiting for your next instalment.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I was the tester for both of the features you mentioned.

    And yes, hindsight is 20/20. Oh, the many hours wasted on fidgeting with priorities of controls on rafted toolbars, and what the combined default command bar should look like at 800×600…

  14. Anonymous says:

    I am so glad you guys figured out that adaptive menus suck. Indeed it is one of those ideas that sounds good because of Apple’s (now 20 year old) UI guideline of "revealed power". However in practice it didn’t work. The number one issue I have with it is that it essentially defeats the purpose of a menu as a interactive device. The essence of a menu is that you get to survey what is available; think of restaurant menus. You are never forced into any paticular choice but knowing all of your options is powerful even to the novice. Whenever I open a new app I always strobe through the menus and get a sense of what the program can do. In learning that program, I often poke at the menus with a notion of some task in mind that I presume the program can do. If it is hidden like adaptive menus, it only serves to obscure the power of the program and steepen the learning curve.

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