The Expert Mode Misadventure

It may seem based on my writing that the ideas behind the Office 12 user
interface kind of popped out of the sky and or that we went with the first things
that came to mind.

In reality, many people contribute creative ideas, and deciding which one is the
best is no easy task. We debate and discuss and weigh the details, and in the
end we have to make a decision.

Sometimes, especially in the early stages, we bet on the wrong idea.
Hopefully we catch many of them through the
testing of early prototypes,
but occasionally it's not until something is in the build and we use it for a while
do we realize that it's totally wrong. It's our job to find and fix those mistakes.

One of the mistakes in Beta 1 of Office 12 is something called "Expert Mode."
I haven't written about Expert Mode yet because I've known we were going to
change the design for some time and I wanted to wait until we had settled on the
replacement design so that I could relate the entire story. I know there are
those on the team cringing right now even seeing the words "Expert
Mode" on the screen...

Here's the background: there are many, many settings in Office. Organized
into rows and rows of tabs in Office 2003, Word alone has hundreds of options,
many of them obscure.

The result of having so many options is that most people never change any of them. They
open the dialog box, shudder in fear, and then close it. Yet, many top feature
requests are things already in Options. ("I want to change my default font.
I want to always save in this format. I want to change the name used to mark
comments." etc.)

These useful options, which I call "user preferences" were mixed up with
many, many advanced settings which made the preferences hard to find.

(How many of you regularly change "Suppress extra line spacing the way
WordPerfect 5.x does" or "Don't expand character spaces on a line that
ends with SHIFT-RETURN"?)

Our solution? A feature called "Expert Mode." When you opened up the new
Options screen, only the
useful, understandable options were present. The idea was that people would find and set their preferences and
never need to be exposed to the rough underbelly of the product. If you really
needed an advanced setting, you could find an obscure checkbox to turn on
"Expert Mode", at which point a bunch of extra settings would show up in place
and in green (to show you that they appeared.)

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. (Sounds like at least a
distant cousin of
Personalized Menus, doesn't

If you never, ever, ever needed anything except for the things we designated
as "preferences", the design worked great. You never saw Expert Mode, and
you'd have a very clean and easy-to-use Options experience.

On the other hand, if you need even one Expert Mode setting even once, your
user experience is destroyed. First, you have to find the checkbox to turn on
Expert Mode (and we didn't make it easy.) Second, as soon as you do, every
section of Options is filled up with extra settings. They show up in-place,
meaning that there's not even anywhere to go scan for the ones that newly showed
up. Third, no one is ever going to do the extra click to turn Expert Mode off
again--so either we "auto" turn it off, or the user is stuck with a confusing
mishmash of advanced settings mixed in with the more commonly changed settings

Despite its shortcomings, we thought the design would work and we put it into the product;
in fact, it's there in Beta 1. Unfortunately, we were wrong..

It soon became abundantly clear that we had made a mistake.

We couldn't get the classification of Expert Mode right; more people than we
thought needed one or two Expert Mode settings and nearly all of them
required assistance to get Expert Mode turned on. Once Expert Mode was activated, even if they only needed
to change something once, the experience degraded to
be not much better than Office 2003.

So, after Beta 1 we demoted Expert Mode to the design scrapheap. Instead, we
gathered together the most commonly sought-after user preferences and put them
on a simple, straightforward first page. Advanced settings which don't fit cleanly into a top-level
category are grouped together into an easily-scrolled Advanced section, with group
headers helping to organize the flow.

The advantages of this design: a clean layout and organization for user
preferences. An easily browsable, single list for more advanced application
settings. Looking for one of these doesn't degrade the Options experience and
doesn't require a checkbox to activate. And best, like the Ribbon, there's no
"auto" behavior--everything has a clear, browsable home that remains the same
session to session.

I'll write in detail about the new Options in a future post, complete with
screenshots. There are some pretty nifty improvements.

Comments (27)
  1. Brad Corbin says:

    Ah, so that’s why you haven’t shown us the options box yet! Looking forward to seeing the new version, and also seeing the rest of the details of the new "File" menu.

    I also remember a lingering question from awhile back about why the "Print" button didn’t make it on the Quick Access menu.

  2. The disadvnatage of a having the "common" settings in one place and the advanced settings a bit harder to reach is that you have created either a "common" or an "advanced" junk drawer.

  3. ChrisC says:

    80% of the people use 20% of the features.

    The tricky part is that they DON’T use the SAME 20%


    I’d like to use stuff like

    · "Don’t expand character spaces on a line that ends with SHIFT-RETURN"

    but I have found that discovering EXACLY what items like that do can be a PITA.  

    I’ve been burned by just trying one and finding myself days later frustrated trying to find and reverse the option I know I did a few days ago which must be causing this mess.

    Possible solution/workaround: make the "Save My Settings" wizard so it can be application specific.

  4. Thank heavens for that: I was not looking forward to explaining how this sort of thing was part of the new improved Excel EUI:

    Excerpt from post follows:


    OK: I eventually found it … extremely hard work!

    – first you have to find the excel options dialog which is now at the bottom of the file thingy

    – then you goto the views tab

    – then you click the checkbox that says ‘display legacy and Advanced settings in this dialog’

    – then you click OK to the msgbox that pops up

    – then you click Ok for options

    – then you go back to File and click the excel options dialog

    – then you click the formulas tab

    – then you click formulas

    – and there it is in green!

    </ End>

    I applaud the courage it takes to admit and change a mistaken good idea.

  5. That sounds much better, thanks. Will we / could we please have the ability to toggle between categorised and alphabetical views of the Advanced list (just like most property pages do)?

  6. Orion Adrian says:

    On of the trickiest things in development that I’ve found is deciding what should be an option. I believe you’ve mentioned this before, but what I’m wondering is have you considered removing some of the options that currently exist.

    For example, do you really need compatability options for Word Perfect 6.0 for DOS?

    Sometimes the best option is no option. It’s harder, but ultimately it can make for a better product.

  7. Ok, well, as someone who would have whole-heartedly supported an expert mode in the unmanageable Office Options dialog (hint:  walk your mother through it over the phone), I read this post with ample hesitation.  I wouldn’t have labeled it "Expert Mode" more like "Show all Options", but your points remain generally valid.  Never mind that.  You’ve effectively accomplished what I saw as the single biggest problem with this dialog:  hundreds of features scattered across different tabs and launching myriad dialogs of their own (at times).  Two tabs each with scanable, logically grouped options within them is a good solution, particularly if you find a way to make the lists more scanable than the Advanced Options checkbox list in the Internet Explorer Options dialog (a dialog which, I hasten to add, could also stand to benefit from a total overhaul rather like the one you describe).

    I hasten to add in closing something I once heard Jacob Nieseln say at a User Experience conference (I’m paraphrasing):  User preferences tend to become substitutes to usability testing.  Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that you haven’t done your homework in that regard, but at what point does Microsoft go into an application and ask themselves:  “What can we remove today?”  How would you approach the question?  Do you?

  8. I think it’s a mistake to call any part of the system ‘Expert’ or ‘Advanced’, or the users’ pride will get them into trouble.

    I think you may want to categorize things as ‘Commonly used preferences’ and ‘Mostly obscure preferences’.


  9. jensenh says:

    We didn’t actually call it "Expert Mode" in the UI.  It was something like "Show less commonly changed settings" or something similar.

  10. Howard Lander says:

    Great work. Will there be any clarifications of the often confusing boundry between application settings and document templates? Do I still have to know what is to change an application setting?

  11. Roland says:

    That’s great news!

    Thanks a lot, Jensen!

    Will also a Super ToolTip be available for each option (for each check box, for example)? The ToolTip could explain/answer: Why should I use this option? For what it’s useful? What will be the consequence if I turn on or off this option?

    I’ve many people seen struggle to try out some options and then trying to undo the changes made (after realizing that the option changed something for the worse). But people always wondered: I’ve changed some of this 400 check boxes 5 minutes ago, and now I don’t like the new effect, but which is the one that I had changed so I can revert it?

    Thus, it would be nice if the Options that the user had changed would be highlighted in a different color, get a special icon, be listed in a "Settings I’ve changed" box, or something else.

    People could then determine at a glance which options they had changed, even after some weeks.

    Aditionally, when people use Office on another computer, they could more easily remember which options they had set on their previous installation (not everybody uses the Migrate Settings tool).

    Thank you!


  12. Patrick Schmid says:

    Good news! I’ll be looking forward to that. No more "Display legacy and advanced settings in this dialog" hidden in Views, Show…

  13. L says:

    So, instead of cleaning up the options dialog and other dialogs you first tried this "Expert mode"-thing, just hiding the clutter. It is remarkable that the idea even made it into Beta 1.

    But as you say the ideas must be discussed and tested, however, going for a “hide – unhide” setting is to make it easy.

    I have been using for ex. Excel since version 2, and every Office to XP; there are several things that need to be cleaned up. Maybe we will see them at last. The charts are also something that has been long due for change. At last, this is good news indeed!

    See John Walkenbach’s Excel Oddities, about the options dialog:

  14. jensenh says:


    Actually it was significantly reorganized and redesigned as well as hiding the "expert" features.  Sorry I wasn’t clear.

  15. Kurt Thomas says:

    So, once again the authors of "Essentials of Interaction Design 2.0" were proven correct… They warn against the whole "Expert Mode" idea, too.

  16. Speaking of options, did you know you can show two time zones at once in the
    Outlook calendar?

  17. Helen says:


    "Don’t expand character spaces on a line that ends with SHIFT-RETURN"?


    There’s an option for that?! And you say that now?! 😀

    I consider myself fairly proficient in Word (even though I mostly work with Excel), and that behaviour (swollen spaces between words due to manual line break) has been annoying me for years, yet I had no idea I could change that.

  18. Say, for reasons obscure, I want my links in Word to open with a single click rather than control-click. Do I look for that in Advanced Options? Or do I look in a more basic tab first? Do I feel lucky? If it’s not in Advanced does that mean it’s on a basic tab? And vice-versa? Or does the option not exist? Does it exist, but I just have to search harder? And in which tab? It seems to me any splitting up of options creates more uncertainty and confusion by giving the user more places to look, possibly involving different categorization schemes.

    Instead, how about one good organization scheme for all options, but use large, bolder, and/or more colorful font for the common options? Common options will then draw the eye first shortening the search, advanced options can be found with more selective study, and less tab thrashing.

  19. ChrisC and Roland–

    Good suggestions there. Hopefully, the Office 12 team also implemented live preview in the Options, so you can see what an option does in your document *before* you select it. I expect that’ll cut down on the cases of "what out of 30 options I clicked did I do to make it do this?"

  20. My suggestion for the "Advanced" mode is to do the same as Eclipse 3 does with their preferences window:

    There is a "search" field where you can type part of a setting’s name, and have the (insanely long) list of options pages filtered to the ones matching your search.

    It even hightlights the matching preference descriptions within each preference page.

  21. Nabeel says:

    Acually, something nice would be to have an option allow the ribbon to "auto hide" after x seconds.

    Since when you select text, some options and fonts and things show up already, that might end up being a faster shortcut to changing that stuff, in which case you don’t need the ribbon right away. So to save screen real-estate that would be good.

    Using the beta now, the amount of space taken up is kinda icky, and I’m on 1400×1050


  22. TvF says:

    The Eclipse IDE has a Quick Search field in the preferences dialog. So you would enter "line" and would only see categories with either "line" in their name or a subcategory or item with "line" in its name, + any item with "line" in its name.

    It has often helped me find a setting which I just *knew* had to be somewhere…

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