This is the eighth 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:
How do we use that data to influence the design and organization of the Office
12 user interface?
If you plot the command usage of the Office applications on a graph, you get a
curve. A few commands account for a lot of clicks, and then slowly the
number of clicks per command tapers off. We use the data represented by
the curve to inform us about how often people use certain commands. The
curve itself helps us visualize the usage pattern of the overall program and the
average “depth” to which most people use the product.
Many people suggest that “you guys should optimize the UI to
match the feature usage data.” On the surface, this sounds like a
solid idea; you could have a computer determine the organization and prominence of
different features depending on what part of the curve they are in. It
would be very scientific. The only problem? We’ve already
designed that product, and it’s called Office 2003.
Put another way: if all we want to do is design a product that matches today’s
pattern of feature usage–well, I don’t have to do any work! Office 2003
already matches the curve exactly; we can’t do any better than statistical
The real equation at work here is data + human = design. We need to
take the data, analyze it, understand its shortcomings, and use it to inform a
design which meets our goals. But, in itself, the data cannot produce a UI
because it has no goals and is a reflection of the DNA of a product you already
Twice a day, I go in and swap out the tapes…
So, back to the initial question. How can we use the data to inform the
Office 12 design? There are two less obvious ways.
One thing we do is to look for desirable features that have low usage
numbers. In general, this combination is a great opportunity for us to
take advantage of work we’ve done in a previous version by helping people find
useful features that they don’t know are there. We can measure the
“desirability” of a feature in several ways: a lot of direct customer requests, questions about the missing functionality on newsgroups
and message boards, and sometimes just our gut feeling that people would like a
feature if they only could find it. An example of this is the feature in
Word that allows you to put a watermark behind a document. Lots of people
ask how to do it, but can’t figure out how. The prominent gallery of
watermarks in Word 12 has already caused many people to
comment what a “great new feature that is.”
Of course, there are things that can derail this process. Number one, a
low-quality or poorly-designed feature will not succeed no matter how easy it is
to find in the UI. Where possible, we’ve tried to “spruce up” old features
in order to make them worth raising their prominence. Secondly, a bad name
for a feature can turn people off from using it. Do we change the name,
hoping that new people will discover it? Or do we keep it the same,
knowing that it hurts discoverability but also that existing users of the
feature won’t be confused. It’s a hard judgment call to make sometimes.
The second way we use the data is by looking for frequently-used features that
are hard to get to today. Any time we see this, it represents people
overcoming the user interface to use a buried feature because it’s so important.
A great example of this is “superscript” in Word. In Word 2003, it must be
added to the toolbar manually through customization. Yet, even as a
non-default toolbar button, it gets more clicks than 30% of the buttons on the
Formatting toolbar. The opportunity here is to discover the things that
people love and that even more people would use if they knew they could.
The point of both of these exercises is to reshape the feature usage curve.
We want to see more people using a broader set of tools and saving time because
Of course it’s true that we also use the feature usage data to figure out which
commands need to be ultra-efficient and which can be taken out of the product
entirely, but that’s really the less lofty part of our goal. Success for
the Office 12 UI means that we broaden the Office 2003 feature curve, not that we
We’ll be able to start visualizing if we’ve been successful at creating a “new”
curve as soon as people start using Beta 1 for their day-to-day work.