For Sale By Owner

One of the never-ending challenges associated with designing the
Office 12 UI is managing screen real-estate.  One of the tenets of our
design is to leave as much room as possible to work with the document.  On
the other hand, there are always more and more features competing for space,
trying to infringe on the document space from all sides.

Some days I feel like our main job is playing "defender of the pixels."  Trying to find
ways to avoid having features take up unnecessary space that you'll never get back. 
Everyone wants their feature to be more prominent, but if every feature is
prominent you end up with a pile of undifferentiated junk.  On the other
hand, if you
find the right home for each feature, you end up satisfying your
discoverability criteria without upsetting the balance between UI and document.

Here's an example.  I keep my car keys in a prominent place in my house,
near the door.  If I don't, I risk losing them and not being able to drive
the car.  I use the keys multiple times every day, so having them out in
the open is crucial and efficient.

Tucked away in a drawer in my kitchen are a bunch of new AA batteries.  Whenever
a device runs out of batteries, I go to the drawer and get the batteries I need. 
The batteries are far less prominent than the car keys, but I can find and use
them just as easily.  Drawers let me keep objects organized so that they are
always there when I need them.

Now, let's assume that I promoted every object in my house to the level of
prominence of my car keys.  My living room would now be piled to the ceiling
with holiday decorations, playing cards, vegetable peelers, floppy disks, magazines, remote controls,
taco seasoning packets, trombone mutes, and a thousand other things.  Everything in
my house would now be "more prominent", yet nothing would be easy to find. 
And worse, there would be nowhere to
walk around anymore.

We've been given an opportunity to start over in Office 12 and correct some of
the priority inversions that have been inflicted on the product in the past. 
Yet, a key design challenge remains convincing people that every feature doesn't
have to be front-and-center in order to be discoverable or usable.  And
it's a vicious cycle: once you artificially inflate the prominence of one
command, it contributes to the clutter which requires you to promote another
command to compete with it.  Pretty soon, your design is out of control.

Screen real-estate should be the most highly-prized commodity; as a user
interface designer, it's the only building material you have to work with. 
And once it's gone, it's gone.

Fight interface squalor.

Comments (25)

  1. ray says:

    In the UK they are running ads on TV to discourage people from leaving their keys near the front door 🙂

    Car thieves like to go around pinching keys through the letterbox using fishing rods, or smashing a window, while the owners are asleep.

  2. James Schend says:

    My keys are always either in my pocket, the ignition of my car, or my nightstand.

  3. Rick says:

    Here is a question you can maybe shed some light on: Screens get bigger and bigger and with this they usually get wider and wider. Even many Notebooks are widescreen now.

    Have you ever thought about putting the ribbon to the left or to the right so the user gets all vertical space for his document? If so, what were the reasons against it?

    I like the way this is solved in Word on the Mac. The formatting palette is on the right and I have most of the vertical space for my document window.

  4. ChrisC says:

    those pop-out things really annoy me. Cannot remember if it started in Visual Interdev or somewhere else, but when I move my mouse out of the way darn-it *please*

    don’t ever (1) cover my document with something that slides out just because I moused over it and (2) please

    don’t ever do anything which causes the text of my document to shift – this causes me to lose any visual reference my brain was maintaining and forces me to backtrack because the UI imposed itself on me.

    Obviously 1 does not apply to tooltips, nor anything that I click on

    2 doesn’t apply to scroll bars


  5. raul says:

    I agree completely… Even though I’m a Mac guy, I’m excited by the changes coming to Office 12. I like that the old broken horrible UI is finally being rethought and redesigned with usability as a primary concern. I’ve enjoyed following your thought process on the blog.

  6. Dan McCarty says:


    I’m surprised that someone like you who clearly "gets" the importance of screen real estate is so enthusiastic about the ribbon and changes coming to Office. Monitors are nowhere near as big as they need to be for the data and documents that users work with these days. It’s like looking through a peephole into the world.

    Based on a sample image at (1024×768) I made some calculations:

    Usable (document) area (with side-bar): 52%

    Usable area (w/o): 71%

    So in other words, when the side-bar is visible, fully half of the display is taken up by the UI. That’s horrible!

    When the side-bar isn’t shown, the usable area goes up to a marginally better 71%. That’s still not great.

    Of course, people will point out, these features can be turned off. But the fact that they’re visible by default and that you encourage the average user to use them means that most people will always leave them turned on.

    And so, sadly, most of the world’s Office users will continue to peer at their world of documents one reduced screenful at a time.

  7. JensenHarris says:

    Dan, you can read my thoughts on this here:

    Overall, Office 12 will give users more of their screens back. Additionally, it’s won’t degrade over time by opening more and more toolbars, panes, and other UI.

    BTW, the Task Pane is off by deafault in Office 12. And there is no ‘Getting Started’ Task Pane anymore.

  8. Abigail says:

    "Now, let’s assume that I promoted every object in my house to the level of prominence of my car keys."

    Suddenly, it resembles *my* apartment!

    Just one question: do you actually have more than one trombone mute? 🙂

  9. Jeff says:

    I knew I should I should have tried to get onto the Office team when I was an employee years ago – this design and usability stuff always fascinates me. I’m looking forward to participating in the beta (real soon…?!!!) as I’ve done with every release for the past 12 years or so…

    The problem with screen real estate is that it is variable – in a big way. I have a 30" wide 16×10 ratio super high-def monitor at home… real estate isn’t an issue (to say the least). A pane of nothing but commands would be great. However, my laptop with the 15" screen won’t work like that.

    A changable configuration like Outlook might be one answer… navigation, reading, taskbar, task pane – all movable and configurable.

  10. Anas Hashmi says:

    You began to talk about real estate and I realized that what is common to some people may not be common to all.

    In Win XP, the start menu (xp-style) has a list of programs that a person has recently used or used multiple times. The things that are commonly used by that person is put in the start menu. If I am constantly using sort, will I have to make multiple clicks just to get to that button?

    However, if everything was put in a list and whatever i commonly use was in that list, my work could be done faster.

    The psychology of the way people work and the things that programmers can do to adapt to it is an ongoing effort. Since I believe in everything being automated, one day programs will automatically adjust to what I do.

    That day, programmers will be needed for inventions. UI designers will be only needed to cope with that.

  11. MSDNArchive says:

    The idea isn’t a bad one, but your last statement strikes me as not quite true – The users still need to find the needed commands at least the first time (and may need to continue to find them if they’re somewhat lesser-used).

    Also, I think the magnitude of commands used by a given person in an application is likely to be more than the number of programs they use often, however that could still potentially be dealt with.

    There are other disadvantages to adaptive UI design, including unpredictability (for instance, if you’re providing training in using an application), but if you search other comments on this blog, you’ll see reference to many of them.

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