Flea Market of Functionality

Last Monday, I set out a simple brain teaser for the Word gurus out there. I listed a number of seemingly unrelated features in Word 2003 and asked the question "what do these have in common?"

John Topley got the answer I was looking for in the very first comment to Monday's post: all of the features I listed are on the Tools menu. Many of you also sent me the correct answer via e-mail.

The point I was trying to make is simply this: don't over-romanticize how ideal the current menu structure of Office is. Although any organization of disparate features is going to have strengths and weaknesses, there's nothing "magical" about File Edit View Insert Format Tools Table Help. I don't want to belabor the subject any further—if you want to read more about the relationship between familiarity and the classic menus, read last Monday's post.

Instead, I wanted to get to an interesting comment Ben R. made last Monday: is it inevitable that there's always going to need to be a "junk drawer" of leftover commands in an application and how is that handled in Office 12?

It caught my eye because "junk drawer" is a term we use as well. I think of a junk drawer as being features piled together primarily for the convenience of the UI designer. The Tools menu is a great example of a formalized junk drawer—an entire menu envisioned as a kind of flea market of functionality.

The upside of the Tools menu is that it's easy to design. When the next four unrelated features get created, you know in which menu to stack them. The downside is that it creates a huge rock that people have to turn over every time they want to find something. There's no way someone could ever rule out "Tools" as a place a feature could be; predictably, when we watch people look for features, they spend a ton of time being sucked in by Tools. (Even though the thing they're looking for is hardly ever there.)

Feature organization is an inexact science. Whenever we propose a new content organization for a set of features, one of the standard questions we ask ourselves is "is this a junk drawer?" And, honestly, sometimes it's a painful question to ask because you really have to force yourself not to create one. Some features flow completely naturally into a feature organization and some are always outliers. In a program as vast as Word or Excel, there are a lot of outliers, and finding the right home for each of them takes thought and creativity.

What tricks do we use to help avoid junk drawers? The first is that we try to force ourselves to use descriptive labels for tabs and groups. We specifically avoid words like Tools, Properties, Options, Edit, and Advanced, which lend themselves to the junk drawer mentality. When we do need a more generic term to help describe what's in it (for instance, the Design tab in PowerPoint), we try to use a word that hasn't been overloaded with meaning in Office already. This helps us to assert the meaning of that word and frees us from the expectation that it maps 1-to-1 with an old menu or toolbar.

The most important technique, though, is just vigilance. There have been a few times in which we almost resigned ourselves to relying on a junk drawer in a certain area and then someone came up with the key insight that brought it all together. Internally, we're constantly shifting content around in the Ribbon, improving the organization and relationship between features.

Why is it important to avoid junk drawers? In our experience, the more specific and logical your feature organization is, the less time people spend hunting around the UI to find things. Every junk drawer in the product is going to take a click any time someone's looking for something—so the productivity cost can be enormous.

So, to answer Ben's question. No, I don't think it's inevitable that even a large program like Word has to end up with a junk drawer. Ensuring that your program doesn't have one will likely cut down the time required to find and use features. The downside is that it's really hard to avoid this design pitfall, and might be extremely difficult to pull off in an existing product without performing a full, ground-up reorganization as we're doing in Office 12.

Comments (24)
  1. richard haly says:

    what are your thoughts on the same functionality appearing in two menus? I suppose users might wonder whether the same functionality was offered. Testing would tell.

    Talk about junk drawer: do something about Outlooks menus. They are seriously non-intuitive.

  2. I have to admit, I think the ribbon is perhaps the greatest idea in user interface to come along since the menu bar itself. I also think it is a very logical extension of what we’re already seeing in other products, such as Apple’s iLife. And I think Microsoft is doing the community a service by being the first one to bring it to bear in force. My only reservations are non-technical: Is this interface going to be available to other developers on the Windows platform? History says no. And is this going to be patented so that it forever remains a Windows-only feature, even once developers write their own code for it (despite foreshadowing of it in other operating system)?

    (I wrote something about the feature itself back in September — my link goes there.)

  3. Michael Zuschlag says:

    Jensen, how useful do you find card sort data for guiding menu item placement? Personally, I worry that the selected description of each function can become a demand characteristic, but has it worked for you?

    Richard Haly, IMHO, putting the same function on more than one menu is asking for trouble. It makes the menus even longer and more complex and users may wonder if it is really quite the same function or not. For example, View – Footer Vs. Edit – Footer. Hmmm.

  4. jensenh says:

    Those are great ideas for future posts, thanks!

    Michael, it’s funny you should bring up Footer, because Header and Footer are pretty much the single most contentious issue in terms of command organization. Does it belong on Insert or Page Layout. (Or both?) People have extremely strong opinions, and good cases can be made for both.

    I think the best case can be made that in behaves like everything else on Insert, so it belongs there, but card sort-type tests show a stronger preference for Page Layout. So we’re still working through that one.

  5. CS says:

    According to your explenation on junk menus called "Tools", will you rename the "Tools"-ribbon, that comes up when I insert a form (e.g. a rectangle). I’d propose "Effects" or "Design".

    Just a little personal thought on the header-footer-problem: Could you just make it possible to edit the header/footer by double-left-clicking on it, even in a new document? Why can’t I use this easy and fast way to edit the header right at the start? It’s not even reserved for any other option. I guess this would make the whole discussion superfluous (at least to me).

    Thanks for doing this blog, there’s a lot of interesting stuff.

  6. jensenh says:


    You can do this in Word already if you just want to edit a blank header/footer.

    But we have a number of galleries of pre-made headers (with auto-page numbering, title of doc, etc.) that we want people to find (making it like an Insert.)

    Also, the header double-click isn’t really discoverable unless you know a lot about Word, so not having it in the Ribbon would violate our "all functionality in one place" tenet.

  7. Simon Jones says:

    Speaking of a Junk Drawer, are you planning to do anything about the Options dialog which, Word 12 in Beta 1, still shows options about the application AND options about the current document, even mixing the two on the same page?

    To my mind this needs serious work. It is confusing to have application wide and document specific options presented in the same place.


  8. jensenh says:


    We are continuing to work on Options and have changed them a lot since Beta 1.

    One of our goals is to make clear which settings are per-document and which aren’t. However, organizing the options strictly based on that has proved to be very confusing as well. If 8 spelling options are in one place, and 1 is in a totally other place, is that a good design?

    There are tough trade-offs and we’re continuing to work on it to come up with the design that makes the most sense for the most people.

  9. jensenh says:


    All interesting questions, unfortunately not ones that I’m qualified to answer. I know people are putting thought into these very questions, but the product team is focused on getting the right product shipped.

    There is intellectual property in various parts of the new user interface, which shouldn’t surprise you given that Microsoft is a corporate entity. That said, as a user of software, I hope others can benefit from the advances in Office 12 (that’s part of the reason of sharing them in this blog.) So, the official answer for now is "stay tuned" for more info.

    I like your write-up, by the way. I haven’t had a chance to play with iLife yet, but maybe after we ship I’ll get some free time. 🙂

  10. Clay says:

    Just awesome. I love this blog. I’ve been designing games for a living since I needed to pay rent and it’s incredibly to finally bump into people that live and breathe this stuff. It is rare in the game industry.

    One thing. When you’re done with Office 12 (or hopefully before then), can you please find someone who’s even half as good at this stuff as you are, and send them over to the Visual C group?



  11. Clay says:

    I’m wondering why I never seen color used in menus and dialog boxes.

    For example, what if the ‘Edit’ menu was light blue, and all dialogs opened by it were also light blue? Tools menu was red, as were the boxes inside it, etc.

    I know everything is designed to be gray, gray, gray. And skinnable. And accessible, so I wouldn’t ASSUME the user had color vision.

    But it could be an extra helpful hint. The next time you’re looking for the "Table Wizard" (or whatever) you might remember "it was green, so it’s on the View Menu".


  12. Clay says:

    cjd at sportsmogul dot com

  13. Simon Jones says:


    I’m glad to hear that the Options dialog is evolving. I understand the point about grouping "spelling" options together whether they are application wide or document specific but I think this is a red herring. The two document specific spelling settings on the options dialog are "Hide spelling errors" and "Hide grammar errors" along with the "Check document" function. Those could easily move to the "Language" dialog to join the "Do not check spelling or grammar" setting. Thinking about it, the document specific language and spelling settings might all sit more comfortably on a popup menu from the spellcheck & language area. This could also include a link to the application wide spelling options dialog.

    An alternative would be to have a "Language & Spelling" chunk on the "Write" tab but that might be more intrusive.

    Similarly the document specific options for saving and printing would more logically sit on the save and print dialogs. In Beta 1 there are buttons which lead from these dialogs to the options dialog but I think document specific settings ought to be promoted to the main dialogs and perhaps the buttons renamed to make it clear that the "options" dialog actually referrs to application wide settings.

    By the way: The Tools button on the Save As dialog looks like it is a tool to manipulate the places bar because of its place & size.


  14. Marc says:

    First of all, great blog!

    "Michael, it’s funny you should bring up Footer, because Header and Footer are pretty much the single most contentious issue in terms of command organization. Does it belong on Insert or Page Layout. (Or both?) People have extremely strong opinions, and good cases can be made for both."

    "One of our goals is to make clear which settings are per-document and which aren’t. However, organizing the options strictly based on that has proved to be very confusing as well. If 8 spelling options are in one place, and 1 is in a totally other place, is that a good design?"

    Is it an idea to make some kind of shortcuts?

    So on the Page Layout ribbon you have a shortcut to the header/footer option, that will show up the Insert ribbon and put your mouse on the right spot (or the other way around of course). And with those 8 spelling options you could make a shortcut to the one that is somewhere else.

    I don’t have the beta, so i have no idea if this would work. Just an idea :).

  15. pli7 says:

    Jensen, are you doing OK?  Haven’t seen a new blog from you since Jan 31.  Uncharacteristic of you. Hope all is well.

  16. John says:

    Do you think you could go chat to the IE7 team about their tools pulldown? I mean their new icon based one, not the menubar one. Seems like it’s as bad as anything Office has had and does reflect serious UI layout issues.

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