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.