Grading On the Curve (Why the UI, Part 8)

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:
Part 1 
Part 2 
Part 3 
Part 4 
Part 5 
Part 6 
Part 7.

Over the last two weeks, I've discussed the
Experience Improvement Program
some of
the data
we've collected from the program.

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 it.

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
match it.

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.

Comments (12)
  1. Anonymous says:

    It is great to hear that so much thought and consideration has gone into the new version. This blog and David’s Excel 12 blog together have made me long for Office 12 already – something I’ve never experienced before!

    Back to the topic…

    In Excel 9/10/11, there are several features that are so great and yet so frustratingly well-hidden… The first thing I do when I get a new version of Excel installed (work or home) is to add some of the formula auditing tools to my main toolbar. It’s also one of the first thing I teach others to use.

    But there are also features that should be less accessible! Or rather, some things are too easily done "by accident". For example, the keyboard shortcut for the new "Research pane" is something (don’t know what) that I hit accidentally about once a day, and I really don’t like the Research pane.

    Another example – it’s far too easy to accidentally toggle Word’s "Show whitespace between pages" option (by clicking the edge of the ruler), not even knowing that that option existed, and then the user has no idea how to get the margins back.

  2. jensenh says:


    As you probably know, the formula auditing tools are much more prominent in Excel 12. That’s a good example!

  3. Mike Dimmick says:

    But do users *really* want superscript, or are they in fact failing to find the Footnote command? Or are they trying to enter equations but for some reason not using the equation editor?

    I’m trying to think of other reasons that the superscript command would be used but I’m drawing a blank.

  4. MSDN Archive says:

    My past usage has mostly been for mathematical descriptions of things where I’m not really writing a whole equation, but possibly referring to a small part of one.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mike, why should a user go into the equation editor just to enter an area such as 10m^2. Simple areas would be used a lot, I would suspect.

    Also, superscripts and subscripts would be used a lot for chemical notations.

  6. ChrisC says:

    As a programmer I place "Hide Spelling" and "Hide Grammer" on the toolbar a lot.

    Many of the things I print in word aren’t related to spelling. (SQL, source code, HTML, etc.)

  7. Anonymous says:

    Chris, I’ve found a better solution than just hiding the spelling and grammar marks… create a "Code" style that has the language set for "No Proofing". I also tend to set it to a monospaced font, etc. Make a Character style (vs. Paragraph) so you can apply it to code excerpts within the rest of your text.

  8. ChrisC says:

    Rob, OH WOW! How did I not think of that? I already have a character style of "Code" which is set to ProFontWindows 9pt – just checked the "Don’t check grammer/spell" box for it

    I *really* hope that in the new default font there is a better distinction between one (1) and the letter "l", and between zero (0) and th letter O.

  9. MSDN Archive says:

    I always thought it would be cool if Word could spell-check CamelCaseWords.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The main option I switch on when using a new install of Excel is the 1-2-3 navigation keys.

  11. Anonymous says:

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

  12. Anonymous says:

    Or: Look Ma, that bear can dance!

    I’m currently reading The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper….

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