Tipping the Scale (Why the UI, Part 5)


This is the fifth 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 
Part 3 
Part 4.

Over the last month, we’ve taken a trip through
Ye Olde
Museum of Office Past
, looking specifically at Microsoft Word for
Windows, starting with Word 1.0 and working our way to the present-day
state-of-the-art, Word 2003.

One of the misunderstandings I’ve seen repeated around the ‘net a number of
times is that our team set out to “destroy the menu-based paradigms introduced
by Apple.”

Of course, as you know if you’ve read
Part 1 of the story, many of today’s UI
paradigms attributed to Apple were introduced well before the Lisa or the
Macintosh.  Regardless of who gets credit for them, they’re good paradigms.  There’s nothing wrong with menus and
toolbars-based UI for certain applications.  Truth be told, these paradigms
served Office well for a number of releases.

Because it’s not that menus and toolbars are bad or that the people who created
them weren’t smart.  The problem is that Office has outgrown them. 
There’s a point beyond which menus and toolbars cease to scale well.  A
flat menu with 8 well-organized commands on it works just great; a three-level
hierarchical menu containing 35 loosely-related commands can be a bit of a
disaster.

In short, we’re not trying to destroy anything.  Our goal is to create a
new standard user interface for full-featured productivity applications.  The original
team who built Word or Excel couldn’t have imagined how much their products
would be able to do today.  I want us to step back, to think through the
question: “what kind of interface would they have built knowing how Word turned
out?”

Let’s take a more visual look at the scale issues facing Office.  Here are a few charts, demonstrating the number of top-level menu
items, toolbars, and Task Panes included in the product, from Word 1.0 to Word
2003:




Number of top-level menu items in Word, by release




Number of toolbars and Task Panes in Word, by release

As you can see, the number of features using all UI mechanisms goes up virtually
every version.  Keep in mind that every toolbar includes between 10 and 50
commands, often presented only as 16×16 unlabeled icons.

Here’s another way of visualizing how much Word has grown in the last fifteen
years.  This pie chart represents the percentage of all features introduced in each
version and illustrates how much more today’s Word can do compared to the first
few versions.




Percentage of Word features added in each version

(By the way, all three charts above were created with Beta 1 of Office 12
just by using the new gallery-based Chart UI.  No tweaks required.)

There are several ways one could approach this kind of scale problem.  We
could have just cut half of the features from the product and left the UI as-is. 
(Well, actually a pretty major redesign would have been required to deal with
half of the commands being gone.) 
But which half to get rid of?  Many
attempts have been made to imagine a “Lite” version of Office, both at Microsoft
and elsewhere in the industry.  It’s hard because virtually all of the features do get used and
every feature is someone’s favorite. 

When we get evidence that a feature is hardly used at all, we sometimes do remove it
from the product–but even then Microsoft feels pain as the people who rely on
that feature lash out.  No one’s ever figured out the true “half of a
spreadsheet” that appeals to the broad market.

Another way we could deal with the scale issue is by factoring the products
differently.  Perhaps if Word were broken up into eight separate apps–say
a text editor, a printing/page layout app, a table maker, a picture editor, a drawing program,
a spelling/grammar checker, a mail merge engine, and an envelope/label printer.  Then each one could
have a more manageable menu and toolbar structure.  When you install
Office, we could put 65 icons in the Start menu.

But that would be going in a direction completely contrary to what our customers ask us for.  We’re constantly
prodded to do more integration, to do better integration.  In
the places where are there separate “apps” today (such as the Equation engine in Word
or the Chart engine in PowerPoint), these are incredible pain points for
customers and they implore us to integrate the functionality.

So, our decision wasn’t to make Office 12 stupider or more fragmented. 
Instead, we worked to embrace the integration and rebuild the user interface to
give us runway to build the next decade of productivity features.  This is
why concepts such as
contextualization and
galleries are so pivotal to the new
UI–they help break the functionality of Office into more manageable pieces
while maintaining the integration that makes the product powerful.

Next week, I’ll delve into how we use the data we get from “SQM”… also
known as the Microsoft Office
Customer Experience Improvement Program.

Comments (25)

  1. Another great post, and those charts look fantastic!

    What’s the support for Black and White printing in the new chart engine?

    I think you’re doing a great job of countering the arguments regarding how you’ve bloated and fragmented Word.

    It’s inevitable when you release O12 that you’ll get some bad press about how you’ve wrecked the UI. Understandable, I suppose, as people are naturally averse to change.

    Apart from blogs like this one which explain up front what’s going to happen, do you do any other planning or strategising for justifying the changes and countering the criticism?

    Andy

  2. mschaef says:

    The new charts look wonderful.

    Just out of curiosity, do you know why the count of menu items went down between Word 6 and Word 95?

    Thanks,

    Mike

  3. tzagotta says:

    This is a really interesting series of posts. Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes decision-making process for the O12 UI.

  4. Abigail says:

    Wow! Your posts on "Why the New UI" have totally changed my opinion of the Ribbon. At first I hated it and I thought it was just an excuse to add something new so that customers would want/have to upgrade. I’m pleased to find out that it was a thoroughly considered decision.

  5. J says:

    Abigail, why would you hate the ribbon just because it was something new so that users would want to upgrade? Is there something wrong with adding new stuff to a product to make users want the new version?

  6. David Harrison says:

    The peculiar thing about Microsoft’s position is that many people will castigate them no matter what they do. If they add features, it must be to force customers to upgrade. If they do not add features, they are not innovating and are producing poor-quality software. It’s the very definition of a no-win scenario.

    From what I’ve seen of Office 12, though, I think that the case for upgrades will be strong. I think this is some of the most important UI work done by *anyone* in the industry in at least ten years.

  7. L.Hernandez says:

    Your series has been fascinating, and I look forward to seeing the new UI in person.

    That said, why did you choose those particular chart formats? Were they the formats that most clearly conveyed the info about the number of menus/toolbar/taskpane items?

    It’s great to have choices, and make it easy to select these formats before committing to them, but there isn’t much guidance provided as to WHY to choose a particular style of chart, and this is something I see users struggle with all the time.

  8. sloan says:

    "If they add features, it must be to force customers to upgrade"

    All companies are guilty of worse than this… not fixing bugs in earlier versions and simply releasing a new version that fixes some of those old bugs, but introduce new ones. EULAs make users agree that the software does NOT guarantee to work correctly. So some users are "stuck" more often than not to either buy a bug fix and get some new features, live with the bugs, or buy another piece of alternative software. Sorry, I am simply bitter at the quality level across all software, not MS particularly.

    The ribbon is an interesting idea, and it will be hard to judge until used, but some of the examples given so far cause more fear than excitement:

    http://www.sunflowerhead.com/msimages/ContextualTabs-9-16-2005.png

    http://www.sunflowerhead.com/msimages/DropdownGallery-9-19-2005.png

    This is from the contextual tabs and Drop Down Gallery. So far, the use of icons seems hit or miss. Just look at the icons for Chart Type and Save Template… how do those images portray their meaning? I have seen the response that over time people use muscle memory to find targets, but then, how is that more efficient than a menu system? I see MS making the same mistakes as Apple with photograph styled icons… which simply removes them from being icons and are harder to interpret because there is too much decoration. The charts used on this page are full of chart junk and use 3D elements that obscure the data. MS, if you want to become what Apple has become, pure style before substance, you will BOTH become incredibly vulnerable to big flops and open the door to competitors.

    I hope the MS team is succssful, I just do not know if this is the "best" approach. I guess only time will tell. Good luck!

  9. Keff says:

    Hello, I love your Office 12 series, and I wish you many pleasant readers and interesting atricles :). Which reminds me – could you possibly devote one part of your series to chart engine in Office?

    Especially, my question number one is, why it hasn’t changed at all since ver. 12? Or this is at least what i feel as an user, since office 2000 I was expecting the chart drawing engine to upgrade and introduce nicer infographics, on par with what you can find in advertising, but i was hugely disappointed with every version.

    But maybe there’s another fascinating story about why it stayed virtually changeless between 97 and 2003. I know you are very busy, but if you were out of topics, try this one, please.

    And good luck :).

  10. Love your blog. Great stuff on usability.

    I was disapointed by your second graph, though. It’s a 3D graph of 2D data, which gets distorted due to the perspective. No wonder Edward Tufte drilled you a new one for PowerPoint.

    Which brings me to my question: Why don’t you hire Tufte to help you design better charts? I know sexy visuals sell the product, but I’m sure you can strike a better balance between sexy and useful.

    Dejan

  11. jensenh says:

    Dejan:

    We have some serious Tufte fans in the team actually. :) Of course, having read his work, you know that it’s really the common usage of PowerPoint (vs. PowerPoint itself) which is the problem. Not that we couldn’t do a better job of helping people be more effective using products.

    I just picked some random chart types so that you could see some of the visuals. I picked a 3D chart (even though it’s kind of the wrong thing) just so that I didn’t repeat the same line chart as above.

    I definitely didn’t put much thought into it, other than to demo several different styles.

    Which brings me to L.Hernandez’s comment–it’s a good idea to try to do more to help people find the most effective way of presenting information. I know our chart and diagram teams think about that, but I’m sure we can do better and I think that’s at the heart of what both of you are suggesting.

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback.

  12. jensenh says:

    On why the number of menu items went down between Word 6 and 95… a couple of features didn’t get ported to the 32-bit world.

    And Word 95 was a pretty minor release, where most of the work was in the 32-bit port, and "auto" features which required no UI (red-squiggle spell-checking, Auto Numbering, etc.) Most of the Office team worked on Office 97 while only a small team put out Office 95–hence the large number of Office 97 features.

  13. jensenh says:

    Andy,

    Your question is a great one but requires more room to answer than a comment.

    I’ll address it in a future post… thanks for the kind words on the blog and the charts.

    There is an Excel blog where you can ask about specifics of the new charting engine (look under Microsoft Office Blogs on my blog page navigation pane on the right.)

  14. PatriotB says:

    One thing that will be interesting is how well the ribbon UI scales several Office releases in the future. From what I’ve seen in screenshots (I haven’t played with the beta), the ribbon looks pretty full already. If you add 10 features that would fall under the "Write" tab, where would they go? I suppose the best thing to do is continually refactor the features into new tabs as necessary.

  15. Orion Adrian says:

    Was it that people wanted a more integrated or a more consistent product? The two things you brought up were functionality that worked very differently than the rest. It was similar enough to give users an impression of what they should be expecting, but different enough to cause confusion.

    I think the bigger issue isn’t that applications aren’t integrated, but that the common canvas types (charts, tables, text, images) don’t share functionality. There’s functionality in one product for a canvas that’s not there in another or if it is there, it often works very differently.

    For example the find/replace functionality in all the products has ticked me off to no end since I’m always wanting the functionality that in the other product. It also doesn’t translate with ^ being the special character token in Word, but nowhere else. Being able to capture linefeeds in Word, but not in Excel, IIRC.

    I feel that it’s the fact that applications force us into their metaphors as opposed to the applictions being forced into ours. Why doesn’t text work the same basic way in all three apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)? Why doesn’t charting? Why don’t tables?

  16. EForce says:

    Another interesting series of articles from Jensen Harris, sharing with us the rationale why Microsoft…

  17. This is the sixth part in my weekly series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided…

  18. This is the seventh part in my weekly series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided…

  19. This is the eighth part in my weekly series of entries in which I outline some

    of the reasons we…