Accessibility Begets Usability

I saw the following post as a comment below a news article on Office 12: "with
its fancy skin, it appears Office has abandoned low-vision users forever."

Nothing could be further from the truth.  We have accessibility experts
within every team in Office, including in the user experience team.  As the page on Section 508
says, "Section 508 reinforces the best
practices that our organization already performs."  That's absolutely true. 
However, our focus on accessibility goes beyond making the software available to
more people.  It is my opinion that most work done to support accessibility
concerns results in better overall usability for everyone using the product.

The most obvious example is keyboard navigation.  Because some people
cannot use a mouse, everything in Office must be accessible with the keyboard. 
But a good design here also benefits expert users who choose not to use the
mouse for efficiency reasons.  Accessibility begets usability.

Another example is our support for large fonts modes in Windows.  Although
we did the work initially to support people with low vision, it turns out to be
most of the same work necessary to make the product work right on tomorrow's
slick, high-tech, ultra-high DPI displays.  It's a win-win situation.

Addressing the comment I quoted directly, Office 12 continues to have great
support for people with low vision, including completely supporting the Windows
"High Contrast Black" and "High Contrast White" schemes.

When a user activates one of the high contrast schemes, we stop using bitmaps to
render the UI surfaces and switch to using colors from our "color table." 
In the high contrast case, all of the colors in our internal color table need to
be mapped to Windows system colors--a hugely difficult and daunting task, given
how few discrete colors are available in these modes.  Essentially, the
colors available map to the objects available in Windows 95; we're pretty much
left on our own to figure out how to map every color in Office to one of these
system constants.

It's kind of like the world's biggest sliding tile puzzle, and it's driving the
people working on it slowly insane... but before we ship Office 12, we'll
get it in tip-top shape.

Accessibility is a way of life for Microsoft, and we'll continue to lead the way
in developing software that is accessible both because it makes the software
better for everyone and because it's the right thing to do.

Comments (16)
  1. Alan De Smet says:

    I would be interested in hearing specifically how you plan on addressing large fonts, especially in the ribbon. Presumably the ribbon will reduce what it displays because the text chews up more space (similar to the behavior you demonstrated when the window is made more narrow). Anything else you had to consider? Do the icons scale up to the fonts, or do we end up with little icons next to be text?

  2. Mr. Dee says:

    Instead of making the larger, you just bold them instead or buy a bigger monitor. From I have seen in the screenshots, Office 12 and 14inch CRT are just out of synch.

  3. Abigail says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Jensen, but I believe the minimum resolution for which Office 12 is optimizing is 1024×768. I run Access with a very narrow width (usually around 800 px wide) and have had only one problem.

  4. jensenh says:


    Everything should be accessible in Office 12 at 800×600. At 640×480, a few dialogs have their OK/Cancel buttons clipped off the bottom, so it’s not really a supported resolution (nor was it in Office 2003.)

  5. ChrisC says:


    My sympathies mapping to the frozen color pallet… I’ve tried it before, but it wasn’t a product req – so the boss had me abandon it after only a day of giving it a shot.

  6. Will says:

    It’s a bit off topic, Jensen, but I’d just like to ask something that’s been floating around in my mind for a while.

    The new office UI look only applies to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and authoring in Outlook, so the other six programmes don’t get it as of yet. Two questions spring to mind here:

    1. Even though they don’t get the full redesign, are there any significant principles from the new UI work that you’re rolling into these products anyway? For instance, you talked about the overuse of Task Panes, so does that mean OneNote will lose some of its 21 panes?

    2. Will these other programmes get the new look in Office 13, or later? Is it an option, or ruled right out?


  7. JM says:

    I just made the very serious mistake of choosing "Send To Email Recipient" from the File menu in Excel 2003. Turns out that feature seems not to attach it to new mail; it looks like it’s creating some kind of bizarre OLE-embedded message monstrosity, probably never viewable outside of Outlook — whatever it is, it’s not what anybody would expect and I have no reason to imagine that it’s what I want, so let’s cancel out of there, okay?

    Five minutes later, I still can’t figure out how to cancel out of it. If I try the usual MDI "close MDI child" button, it prompts me about saving changes to the file. I don’t want to close the file, I want to kill the stupid toolbar, but I’ll re-open the file if that’s what it takes. Is it still an Excel file? Will it be saved as RTF or some madness? Who knows? Ten to one it’s going to lose my data or hide it somewhere, because Office compulsively thinks it knows better than I do where my files belong — but what other option do I have? Okay, so I tell it to save and exit. But I opened the file from an Outlook attachment. Now I want my changes back. Where did my changed file go? It’s not on the MRU menu. If I open the same attachment, I get a "(2)" after the name, and it’s the original, pre-change version.

    I’ll have to go searching in "My Documents", because Microsoft thinks I should save absolutely every file I edit in that one directory (which is perfectly insane).

    I should have left the office over an hour ago.

    Please don’t inflict miseries like this on your users in the future. If a command puts the program into a weird, annoying, and useless state, the user should in most cases be able to cancel out of it. Sending an email is the kind of activity the user should ALWAYS be able to cancel out of.

    And what in God’s name is up with Office 2003 disabling the Exit button in the title bar and Close on the system menu?

    I’m encouraged by the talk about the Office giving up on all the attempts to guess what the user wants, like the Adaptively Unpredictable Menus and whatnot, but Office has been such an ever-worsening mess for so long, I’m not optimistic.

    Hey, wait a minute! I just found my Excel file, opened it, and it still has the email header garbage on it! Why is that a state that must persist across sessions? Why did you do this to me? WHY? In version 12, please put a confirm prompt on the destroy-spreadsheet-as-email menu item saying "WARNING: This command will add a giant annoying extra toolbar, and the only way to get rid of it (restarting won’t help!) is to send a useless email message to a bogus address. Continue? [Yes][No]" That would be very helpful.

    It sent me a ridiculous HTML version of the file, in which the string "style=’border-top:none;border-left:none’" appears 255 times. Two hundred and fifty-five. I guess they used the single-quotes to save space, right? Get it? That was supposed to be funny.

    I usually don’t hate Microsoft. Windows works fine and I’ve been very happy with DevStudio since v5. But every time I go near Office, I end up wanting to bomb Redmond, because the last thing Office ever, ever does, is what I tell it to. And the edit control in the file open/save dialog doesn’t have a context menu (WHY?) Little things like that, where you get the feeling they stayed up late thinking about small ways to violate the user’s expectations, just to crank up the misery level that much more.

  8. JM says:

    P.S. Of course this wasn’t an appropriate place for that rant. I don’t suppose Jensen Harris liked finding that rant there any more than I like finding my files in "My Documents" on days when I forget that Office is incapable of persisting the working directory.

    The point of the bogus email address was that I didn’t want to spam the contemplated recipient with some broken pseudo-spreadsheet when he wanted the real one. Instead, I sent it to myself out of curiosity, and sure enough, it sent me HTML crap instead of a spreadsheet. Without warning, of course. No warning at all that the data being sent was a HTML "picture" of what I actually told it to send. Had I been naive enough to trust Office, it would have really screwed me.

    Thanks, guys. Your product treats me like the enemy.

  9. jensenh says:


    I think the answer to your question can be found here:

  10. jensenh says:


    Sorry you’re having trouble with Office 2003. I tried to replicate some of the things you mention having trouble with but they seem to work fine for me. (For instance, I just click the red Close X in the e-mail message brought up from Excel and it cancels just fine.)

    Other things, like the Close button and Exit being grayed out I also can’t replicate. The context menu in the file dialog is a good issue and one which looks to be fixed in Office 12.

    Wish I could shine more light on what’s going on with your other issues!

    That said, I’m not qualified to do tech support here on my blog (and don’t really know any more about most of these features than you do.) In the future I will remove any comments that are totally unrelated to the post being commented on.

    The MS Support web site links to a lot of resources for troubleshooting problems, including the support newsgroups where it’s often quick and easy to get the answer to your question from an MVP or employee in the exact area you’re interested in.

    Your general point about making the product more predictable in general is well-taken and is in line with my values on the subject as well.

  11. jensenh says:


    We support large fonts by increasing the size of the ribbon vertically to accomodate the larger size of the text. Horizontally, our scaling mechanism comes into play and the Ribbon figures out which chunks fit onto the screen in which configurations.

    The result on a small monitor is that when you enable large fonts, fewer controls can be labeled in the same amount of space.

  12. BradC says:


    I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I did the same thing the first time I saw this happen (in front of a class full of students, no less!!), and here’s how to fix it:

    Just click the email button again (next to save on the toolbar), and the "sending email mode" toggles back off. The extra toolbar, plus the To, CC, and Subject boxes disappear.

    This is especially annoying when you’ve activated the feature from File, Send, but can’t UNactivate it from there.

    That said, it is actually a pretty cool feature. Have a short document in Word that you want to send someone? A note or memo? Just send with the message AS the body, instead of having to save and attach a Word doc. Small table of sales figures in Excel? Send it AS the email, instead of ATTACHED to the email.

    Makes it much easier to send information that you otherwise would either attach or copy and paste into the email.

    It should send in fully compatable html format, so that anyone can read it, whether they have Office or not.

    One more cool feature: do this in Excel, and you can send a spreadsheet as the message body. Then the end-user can either just read and respond, or they can actually right-click the table portion of the email to open the spreadsheet back up in Excel!! Very cool feature, and even retains the formulas that existed in cells (if I recall correctly).

    Hope this helps.


  13. In an attempt to get us back “on topic”. . .

    The idea that designing software for people of all “abilities” benefits people of ALL abilities, simply makes sense. Which is another reason I truly hope “they” solve the problems of speech generation & recognition for the blind. 🙂

  14. PatriotB says:

    "And the edit control in the file open/save dialog doesn’t have a context menu (WHY?)"

    Because Office doesn’t use the standard Windows open/save dialogs. (Evidently they aren’t "good enough" for Office.)

    Of course that means that you get inconsistencies/annoyances such as this. As well as those pointed out by the following commenters:

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content