Set In Our Ways?

Today, just thinking aloud...

A minor design conundrum we face is as follows: based
on the data we collect, we
can see that within certain sets of related features, some of them are used much
more frequently than others. Should we ever act on this data by showing only the
most-used features in a set?

Let's take three of the most common "sets" of icons in Office: "Bold - Italic
- Underline", "Left Justify - Center - Right Justify", and "Undo - Redo".

Conventional wisdom and common practice dictate that wherever one of these
icons tread, all of them should appear. I don't think I've ever seen a user
interface with just Bold and Italic and not Underline. (At least not one that
actually has an underline feature...)

Yet, when you look at the data, Bold is one of the most-used features in
Excel but Underline hardly registers. Left Justify and Center are used 100x more
than Right Justify in Word. And Redo might as well not even exist next to the
towering fame of Undo.

The design challenge comes when we want to pack high-usage commands into a
small space, such as when we decide on the default content of the
MiniBar or the
Quick Access Toolbar. People want efficient access to Bold, but they probably
don't need as quick access to Underline. In the past, we've always treated those
three icons as a set, but could we get away with only Bold and Italic?

Same with text justification: the data would dictate only putting Left and
Center on the MiniBar, perhaps to give way to a more-used command like
Highlighter. But would people wonder and criticize why Right Justify isn't
there? Do the Left and Center buttons stand alone, or do they require Right in
order for people to intuit what they do?

There are other options, of course. We could turn text justification into a
dropdown menu, as recent versions of another commercial word processor does. But
then you're requiring an extra click to get to any of these features--and at
that point, having it on the MiniBar isn't saving you much time anyway.

It is safe to say that we're at least considering dropping a few icons from the
MiniBar (only) in order to make room for features people use more.

Perhaps the hardest pill for me to swallow though is having Redo on the Quick Access
Toolbar. Undo absolutely belongs there; it is one of the most-used features in
Office and it needs to almost feel like part of the frame--something always
available regardless of the tab of
you're on.

But Redo is used in fewer than 3% of work sessions. And the Quick Access
Toolbar is
prime real-estate--a place we don't want to take up any extra space
whatsoever for superfluous icons. So could you have Undo without Redo? Where
would Redo go? It's not used so infrequently as to remove it altogether, so it
has to have a home. The current design, in which both Undo and Redo are in the QAT, is the trade-off we feel best with so far.

Does the product's complexity go up much because of the extra Redo
icon next to Undo? The good news is "probably not," because you expect to see Undo and Redo
together--in this case the extra icon just completes the Back/Forward metaphor
seen in so many apps today (especially the web browser.)

I guess a related question would be: Does having a well-known icon missing
from a set (say, only Bold and Italic and not Underline) actually cause
cognitive dissidence because it feels wrong? These are all interesting questions
to look into...

Comments (50)

  1. Brad Corbin says:

    Great questions!

    I think that redo is required on the QAT because it doesn’t exist anywhere else (or at least I can’t think of anywhere else it might go). Would it instead go on a specific ribbon tab? Would it be buried under the File menu?? Relegate it to keyboard shortcut only?!?

    Regarding the floatie, err, minibar. The minibar is designed for quick access to frequently-used features. I could absolutely see removing right-align from this list if it scores low enough.

    But part of what makes these icons (quickly) recognizable is because they come in a set. Any single alignment icon is a bit less recognizable by itself–for that reason, you would definitely need to keep at least the Left- and Center-align together for identification purposes. Leaving out the right-align should still keep the other two recognizable as a set.

    Leaving out underline might lead to a few more raised eyebrows. Bold and Italic are certainly recognizable by themselves, so I don’t see that as an issue.

    What about a compromise? List it on the longer right-click menu, but leave it out of the minibar?

  2. Brandon Bloom says:

    Currently, the Undo button drops down a list of actions to undo. Maybe you could simply show the Undo option but make it work more like the new back/forward drop down in IE7 where Undo doubles as a Redo if you use the drop down arrow and click an item above the "last action arrow".

  3. Colin Walker says:

    So, Redo only gets enabled AFTER an Undo action has occured. Could it therefore be removed in the first instance and then (like the rest of the UI) enabled according to a specific context (i.e. an Undo event has occured therefore we have to show it).

    As with current versions, once you take another action the Redo is disabled again until the next Undo event so it seems only natural to hide it until needed.

  4. Adrian says:

    Just for clarification, are the usage stats you quote per feature regardless of how users invoke them (keyboard or toolbar)?  I would imagine that most people who use Redo tend to use the keyboard shortcut, but that people who use only Undo might include a mix of keyboard and toolbar clicks.

    It’s not surprising that underline is rarely used.  Underlining is generally not recommended in typeset documents.  It used to be how you indicated emphasis when your output method couldn’t produce italics.  Now, with documents ending up on the web or rendered as HTML email, users expect underlined words to be links.  I’d think removing the underline button would tend to improve documents by removing the temptation to abuse this feature that should be seldom applied.  Nobody will miss it.

    Personally, I’d rather have "emphasis", "strong emphasis", and "title" buttons, and a way to map text marked as such to different styles with a style sheet.

    I write novels and short stories, and I’m constantly printing manuscripts in different formats.  Editors and agents want double-spaced, typewriter-style copies with underlining for emphasis.  My wife prefers to read copy that looks like a typeset book.  My mother-in-law needs extra large print.  WYSIWYG makes this a pain.  What writers need is a mark-up system.

  5. Adrian says:

    One more thing…

    I never understood why the justification buttons included only left, center, and right.  Where’s full justification?

  6. Step says:

    Interesting question – I am curious to learn what you find out.  How does it impact people’s recognition and ability to find the items when you disturb the set?  Is it worthwhile to "reprogram" people’s expectation of the sets?

    Here’s my humble feedback, thinking not only of my own usage but of the general set of users I observe (other users of my advanced-but-not-expert skill level, and users of the almost-computer-illiterate levels).  

    Underline should be perfectly safe to remove.  Bold and Italic still make a set, are very recognizeable, and Adrian has a very good point about the meaning and usage of underline having changed.  It would probably be good and safe to support this.

    Right-justify I’m not so sure about, b/c of how it completes the set aesthetically.  But again, people that are already familiar with the set would probably still recognize the partial set quickly with little impact.  People not familiar would of course not miss it.  And again, the usage is lower (at least in Word).  I’m still a little uncertain on this one though.  

    Let us know what you find out!  🙂

  7. Centaur says:

    Listen to what Adrian is saying. Lose the Bold, Italics and Underline buttons. Replace them with buttons that set character styles Strong Emphasis and Emphasis. Drop Left/Center/Right, replace with Body Text, Heading 1 and Epigraph (or whatever else is Right alignment useful for). Maybe add Heading 2 and Heading 3 in a dropdown. Make people use styles, for they deserve it!

  8. Jon Peltier says:

    For text justification, show only the options in the minibar which are not selected, i.e., if the curent selection is left justified, show oly right, center, and full justification. Yes, I also noticed full justification was missing.

    As I read the article, what kept occurring to me was finally stated right at the end:

    "Does having a well-known icon missing from a set (say, only Bold and Italic and not Underline) actually cause cognitive dissidence because it feels wrong?"

    I was going to say that I feel comfortable knowing that it’s there even if I don’t have to use it. Like life insurance.

  9. CS says:


    You actually don’t need a further click for dropdown menus if you just set them to pop up upon single left click, then while still holding down the mouse button you select the feature you want and by letting it go (the mouse button) you select it (as is in word 2003, e.g. for line spacing).

    Personally I find this menu behaviour even easier and of course faster to use than the normal Click -> Select -> Click thing (which should of cause be possible, too).

    I’d recommend (or would actually prefer) this way for

    – line spacing

    – left/center/right/full justification

    – bullets/numbering/list

    – borders and

    – text/highlight color.

    By the way: will it be possible to move/copy/remove certain features to/from a Ribbon? And what about user specific Ribbons? Why not allow users to put their favorite and mostly used features in one ribbon.

    And one more point: I tried it and it is not possible to edit the header/footer in a blank document by double left clicking on it…

    Please go on with this great and interesting blog


  10. Ben R. says:

    These are really tough questions.

    I think one major issue is whether the default icon sets for the Quick Access Toolbar and Minibar should simply fit what commands are used most often, or instead whether they should also play a role in encouraging users to take advantage of helpful but often overlooked features.

    For example, Jensen mentioned making the Highlighter more prominent. I doubt that’s in response to usage stats (though correct me if I’m wrong!). It’s probably because that’s a great feature that’s underused, because it’s not handy in current versions of Office and people don’t necessarily know it exists.  So placing it on the Minibar would encourage its use.

    Similarly, perhaps Redo should be on the Quick Access Toolbar not just because Undo/Redo are a "set," but also because Redo is an incredibly useful feature many people don’t know about or forget about. Even if it is so amazingly rarely used, putting it on the QAT could enhance the user experience and make it more used.

    Of course, this "prescriptive" way of thinking could lead to disaster: a Minibar or QAT filled with the UI team’s personal favorite features that they are convinced everyone *should* use.

    As an aside, I can see how this part of the process might be the most difficult. All the big decisions have been made, but all these small decisions have such a huge impact. I guess the saying about the devil being in the details is very much true when it comes to user interfaces.

  11. jensenh says:

    A couple of quick answers:

    I left full justification out because it’s not in all programs (it is, of course in Word.)

    Highlighter is used very frequently, especially in e-mail, so we would be swapping in a more-used command.

    The "just use styles" vs. "direct formatting" route–you will be able to apply styles from the MiniBar, but experience has shown that you can’t _force_ people to use styles and a lot of people like good old Bold. 🙂

    Good discussion so far…

  12. Abigail says:

    Adrian, Go back to Jensen’s post about "What software do you love?" Half the utilities mentioned in the comments were markup/text editor things.

    Do editors really still prefer monospaced, typewriter-like, underlined-for-emphasis manuscripts? Seems to me a typeset look would be much easier to read. (Still double-spaced, of course.)

  13. gruskada says:

    How about doing something like Adobe Photoshop does with sets of tools on its toolbar? For example, the blur and sharpen tools are grouped together, but you only see one on the toolbar, with a little arrow letting you know that there’s more tools behind it.

    You could have the most-used one always in view, but let the user either pause the mouse over the icon to see related tools, or click.

    You’ve got a great blog, btw.

  14. Michael says:

    One UI with no underline button is Flash MX 2004.  Text fields have the capability for underline, but it is not accessible from the UI.  Until the Flash developers here were shown how to access it, they were manually drawing lines under text with the line tool.  I assume Macromedia’s reasoning was to avoid mistaking underlined text for an href.

    Regarding the UI of Word, most people I have seen using it are not experts, so do not have common commands memorized.  What these users typically do is sort of "float" around the toolbar, using the cursor like a finger to trace over all the buttons, sometimes bringing up tooltips.  Common button sets (bold, italic, underline) usually get none of this attention, but they are a landmark in nearly any word processing application (even many web forms use these buttons).

    I know that as a long-time power user, I would likely be a bit perturbed to find the underline button to be missing, and would immediately begin looking for where it moved to.  Once I have discovered its location, I would probably never think twice about it again, except to note how cluttered other word processing interfaces looked with it always available.

  15. Scott says:

    <i>You could have the most-used one always in view, but let the user either pause the mouse over the icon to see related tools, or click. </i>

    Alas, I don’t think it works particularly well in Photoshop.  The discoverability is very low and some of the "relations" are very strained.

  16. I’d bag the low-used icons. I imagine any dissonance will be short-lived and outweighed years of benefit. It’s not like there aren’t already format commands missing (e.g., justified, superscript). One cool thing about these icons is they’re not just commands, they’re annunciators for the current format. This is especially important for Bold and Italic states, which can be hard to determine just by looking at the text with some fonts. Underline and Right, on the other hand, are easy. As for Redo, I second Brandon Bloom’s suggestion.

  17. Keith Soltys says:

    I’ve read two book manuscripts for friends in the last couple of years. Both were 12 point Courier New, double-spaced. I’ve read that editors like it because they can easily estimate word count, but of course now with word processors, you can get that number instantly with a couple of mouse clicks. But the publishing industry is _very_ conservative.

  18. Orion Adrian says:

    There is a point at which you should change your ways. Usually that point is several years after you do.

    While Bold, Italics, Underline may be more recognizable for the short term than Bold and Italics alone, it’s still a bad thing to waste screen real estate on the minibar for them.

    At some point we’re simply deferring pain. Often it’s best to make the change now, eat the cost and know it’s going to be better soon.

    It’s a long-term view and while it may affect revenue and costs in the short term, the long term view is much better. Remember, Microsoft is a blue chip company and can afford to take small hits like this in order to change precedent; something I have to believe due to the ambitious and needed changes like the Ribbon.

  19. The answer, of course, is "It wouldn’t matter if you allowed us to customize where we want them". Then if your preference is for only putting most-used items on the minibar that’d be fine – If I tend to use underline lots (or strike-through), I could put it there alongside bold and italic and be happy.

  20. Wesner Moise says:

    I noticed that IE7 uses a single dropdown for both back and forward, with a check to indicate the location in the history stack.

    Perhaps, there is something to learn here in relation to undo and redo which together form a history stack. Perhaps, the two features can be unified into a single button with a dropdown arrow.

  21. mschaef says:

    "So, Redo only gets enabled AFTER an Undo action has occured. Could it therefore be removed in the first instance and then (like the rest of the UI) enabled according to a specific context (i.e. an Undo event has occured therefore we have to show it)."

    In Excel, The "Redo" command toggles between "Redo", which is enabled when there are items on the redo stack, and "Repeat" which is available otherwise. As you might guess from the name, "Repeat", repeats the last commmand you took, and can be a lifesaver when you want to apply the same formatting updates to a number of disjoint cells or ranges.

    With respect to Left, Center, Right justification buttons, I still occasionally type Control+C to center text, which was changed with WinWord 2.0, IIRC.

  22. Kevin says:

    I’d ditch underline. I think that the Bold and Italic icons are well known enough thayt they can stand on their own. Underline is also troublesome since it often is interpreted in electronic documents to indicate the presence of a hyperlink. Highlight would be a great replacement for Underline in the set.

    The Left, Center, and Right align buttons act as a set and are visually interpreted as a set. Their meaning is reinforced by their grouping. Would they make as a much sense if the were order Right, Center, Left or Center, Right, Left? No. Any one or two of them alone is not as clear as the three icons in a logical ordering.

    While Redo is underused it also acts to clarify the purpose of the undo icon. They are more intuitive as a set than alone.

  23. Dan McKinley says:

    I require underline to properly spell my last name (the ‘c’ really should be superscript and underlined), but you have my permission to get rid of the icon. That is the only occasion that I ever need it, and I can learn the hotkey.

  24. Travis says:

    Blogger’s post interface doesn’t have an underline button; just Bold and Italics.  Underline’s mostly useless on the web since it’s supposed to indicate a link, but it’s pretty useless in print, too.

  25. bg says:

    What are your thoughts on toolbar buttons that use "english" letters to spell out their meaning i.e. B for bold, I for italic – presumably these aren’t localised?

  26. Paul says:

    I’d agree with another commenter than left, center and full justify would be more usefull in the majority of ocument formatting.

    The only time i have ever used the right justify button is to click through the various justifications one after the other to see how they look. Right justify doesn’t need to be on the tool bar as much as full justify.

    Can you even do full justify in word? its not on the toolbar.. i dont know how to 😛

  27. anutthara says:

    Re bg’s comment on using English letters in Bold and Italic buttons:

    1. The features are really NAMED Bold and Italic – so it doesn’t make much sense localizing feature names.

    2. The letters anyway graphically suggest what it means, like the B is boldened and I is italicized and U is underlined – so it provides a visual cue too.

    Just my $0.02.  

  28. TvF says:


    In German Office, "Bold" is named "Fett" with a bold "F" on the button and "Italic" is named "Kursiv" with a bold "K" on the button. Even the shortcuts are changed…

    So actually, they ARE localized.

  29. Ron says:

    Right-justify is a lot more useful than left-justify when you’re writing in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian etc. 🙂 And you need both if your document mixes scripts (e.g. if you have Arabic block quotes inside a mostly French text).

  30. Ilya Birman says:

    Why not put Redo in the Undo’s dropdown? Just an idea. As I have heard, in IE 7 they are implementing something similar: they have a common dropdown menu for Back and Forward buttons.

    If you do this, you will save the real estate, put Redo in somewhat logic place and also be a little more consistent with IE 7, for free 🙂

    (Haven’t read the comments attentively enough, maybe someone already posted this?)

  31. Dave Solimini says:

    I think you have to look at these kinds of commands in terms of how people define what they do in their mind.

    In the left/center/right scenario, it strkes me that people define the LEFT button as an opposite. The three buttons are clearly a spectrum of possible options. By removing one member of the spectrum, you’re losing a way of helping people define what the button does. Remember, LEFT is the default.

    When it come to Bold/Italic/Underline…

    Im not sure why everyone hates underlines. I tend to use them all the time for subheadlines in documents or to put emphasis on the first words in a bulleted list. I work with legisltors who are often busily running between meetings. When it comes to pulling their attention to a couple of important sub-points, underlining works very well as a lesser emphasis than bold. Are people seeing huge over-uses of underlines or something?


    I think it should be left there for a few reasons…

    First, the same as left/center/right. It’s the other half of a spectrum. Second, having it as a dropdown option from the undo button is confusing, as lots of programs use the undo dropdown to undo more commands in the undo stack, a smart little feature.

  32. Colin Banfield says:

    Is the QAT customizable? If not, then it’s a bad idea to be making decisions permanently on the user’s behalf.  Personally, I could live without Underline and Right Justify on the QAT.  I can’t live without Undo.  I use full justify in Word much more than I use either left justify or center and full justify is not even in the QAT!!!


  33. Colin Banfield says:

    I meant to say that I can’t live without "Redo."  It’s understood that no one can live without the Undo button.

  34. MSDNArchive says:

    Yes, the QAT is customizable, so it’s really a question of what should be on there by default.

  35. Adrian says:

    Abigail asked if editors still expect monospaced fonts for manuscript submissions.

    For mainstream fiction and nonfiction, most agents and editors still prefer submissions on paper in standard manuscript format.  (A lot of technical books and stuff for online publications are often submitted electronically, so this may not apply to them.)  Although some agents and editors will accept a proportional font (like 12 point Times New Roman), nobody complains about a good monospaced font like Courier.

    I’m not sure what happens once a publisher acquires a book; I haven’t sold a book yet.  I assume that a publisher would ask the author for an electronic copy to avoid the expense and risk of re-keying your manuscript into whatever typesetting system they use.  I sold a technical article once, and they wanted electronic copies both in Word and plain text formats, which was a pain since I had used TeX.

    Screenplays definitely still use monospaced fonts.  The format is very stylized, and a lot of timing can be determined by page count.  The style is tough to get right in general word processors.  There are a couple of specialty programs, like Final Draft, which have pretty much taken the entire screenplay niche away from the general office suites.  (I saw one screenwriter blog that Final Draft’s monospace font is a tad narrower than traditional 10 cpi typewriters.  He joked that this discrepancy is the primary cause for today’s movies running longer and DVDs having zillions of deleted scenes.)

    As for what authors actually use, I suspect most use Word.  I know some academics use WordPerfect.  Science fiction author Cory Doctorow uses a plain text editor on a Mac, and I read that Robert Sawyer swears by Wordstar on a DOS box for its superior keyboard control.  Some technical journals expect submissions in particular dialects of TeX, like LaTeX or AMSTeX, which would generally be prepared with a text editor.

  36. WDM says:

    Not just set in one’s ways. After a time, like a musician, you acquire "muscle memory" and expect certain things when you press a certain key combo without looking or move a mouse just that correct distance to hit the control you know is there without looking for it.

  37. anutthara says:

    @TVF – Wow! Thanks for pointing that out, TVF. On a related note, I wonder if we could remove the letters from the icons altogether – since as a general rule I suppose it’s not the best thing to include letters in an icon.

  38. anutthara says:

    @TVF – Thanks for pointing that out, TVF. On a related note, I wonder if we could remove the letters altogether from the icon, since in general, it’s not desirable to have letters inside an icon…

  39. Abigail says:


    Thanks for the explanation!

  40. Back in the article &quot;Set In Our Ways?&quot; I talked about one of the design issues we were thinking about…

  41. Dawn Crosier says:

    My suggestion for the justification question is have the icon show what the text is currently set for, and let the user toggle through the choices in order of most common to least common use.  Similar to how Office 2003 allows you to toggle through the tab choices on the ruler.

    I think Bold, Underline and Italic should all be displayed, with an indication of which one’s are in use at the point of the cursor.

    I spend more than 50% of my days troubleshooting documents, and I look to the toolbar to see what is going on with the document and why it may not be responding to commands as expected.


  42. JAPHspam says:
    I just like spam! I’m collocting junk email…

  43. Cajo says:

    I never use underline, so I remove it from toolbars whenever i customize them. I’d probably do the same in Office 2007, or not bother. No biggie.

    I think I’d prefer to have underline in there by default, not because I ever use it, but because it leaves a nice hole after it, where I can put something I use often, but that’s not there by default.

  44. Tonko Boekhoud says:

    I just read the 8 very interesting articles about how the Office GUI should look like. What strikes me is that most of the text is about tactics.

    The discussion seems to focus on how to show the appropriate commands at the right time, and what button that should be, and what colourscheme the I for Italic and so on.

    We have buttons, links, key-combinations, menu-items, menu-trees and so on. Actually, those tools all do the same: they raise an event that the program has to handle.

    IMHO, the main issue is that you see your program as a real estate building. But it should be a kitchen where the user can cook an egg. Or haute cuisine.

    Then there would be e.g. cupboards in a kitchen. When I cook a meal, I get the tools I need out of them. When I’m finished, They go back (yes, clean).

    I personally decide how my kitchen looks like, what’s where in which cupboard. Therefore, I am able to determine my cooking-strategy and during use, adapt my kitchen and the tools to it.

    Now back to office-building. However there are many many many ways to customize toolbars, menubars, they frighten me. Because actually, it is a concrete building. Thus I’m afraid of losing buttons.

    I would like you to build cupboards that are so easy to use, that I am happy to put my tools in it. Tools in the shape that I want, whatever that is; a button, a key-combination or a menu-item or something else.

    The cupboards may have glass or wooden doors in it or drawers and right in front of me some shelves.

Skip to main content