The Future of Task Panes

As I’ve mentioned before,
Task Panes made their first appearance on the scene in March 2001, in Office XP. If you want to get the background on Task Panes, why they were added, and their role
in modern Office UI, read
or, better yet, the
entire "Why
the UI" series

Because of our oft-stated design mantra "everything’s in
the Ribbon"
some people have speculated that Task Panes are not a part of Office 12. This is
not precisely true, although the content of many Task Panes have moved to the
Ribbon and the role of Task Panes in the product has become more focused. There
are many fewer of them, and the few which are left are more consistent in their
behavior and reason for existing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s talk about the mechanics of the Task Pane as it existed in
previous versions. The Office XP/2003 UI includes a single, full-height pane docked to
the right side of the window. This single pane could show one Task Pane at a
time, and you could switch between the available ones using a dropdown menu at
the top of the pane.

The Task Pane in action (Click to view full picture)

The Task Pane was used for at least four different kinds of UI.

First, it could act as a place to show secondary document information based
on selection. The
Styles and Formatting pane in Word, the
, and the
Watch Window in Excel are good examples of this type of pane.

Second, the Task Pane was used as a kind of replacement for a wizard when it
was deemed important to have access to the document while running the wizard.
Mail Merge pane
in Word is an example of this.

Third, the Task Pane was sometimes used as a replacement for what should have
probably been a dialog box. The
Attachment Options pane in Outlook 2003 WordMail
is an example of this.

Fourth, the Task Pane was used to show a set of visual choices, such as the
Slide Design pane
in PowerPoint 2003. These were mostly items moved out of dialog boxes so that
the results of the visual choice could be seen without blocking your document content.

So, it already wasn’t totally clear how the Task Pane was to be used. Adding to the confusion was that a number of the Task Panes had automatic
launch behavior. This could be frustrating. For example, the Clipboard pane
took over that space if you happened to press CTRL+C a few times in succession.

When we designed the Ribbon, we knew we had to reconcile it with the
role of Task Panes. We considered removing all of them from the product
entirely, but there were a few which did seem to make sense within the new
design. So we struck a set of design principles to govern when and how would
allow the use of Task Panes:

  • All Task Panes which had content consistent with the Ribbon were removed and integrated into the Ribbon. Slide Design in PowerPoint is an
    example of this, where it became its own Ribbon tab. This accounts for most of the Task Panes in the product.

  • Task Panes never come up automatically. They are always turned on or off
    by the user, and always from the Ribbon. This is how we’ve stayed true to
    "everything starts with the Ribbon." If you want a Task Pane as part of your
    document workspace, you can turn it on and we’ll never mess with it.

  • Allow people to have multiple Task Panes up at once. To put people in
    better control of their screen real-estate, we’ve turned all of the Task
    Panes into lighter-weight panes that you can arrange as you like. If you
    want to include both Styles and Formatting and the Research pane as part of
    your workspace, go for it.

  • No Task Pane will show up at startup. This includes the Getting Started
    pane, which has been removed from the product.

  • No inter-Task Pane navigation. There’s no dropdown list of Task Panes;
    the UI is organized into one place–the Ribbon. You can open the Clipboard
    pane from the Clipboard group on the Ribbon but not from some one-off list
    of panes hanging from Mail Merge.

The goal was to provide a predictable, consistent experience in which you are
in control of what windows you see as part of your workspace. The Ribbon remains
the one place to browse for functionality–there’s no deep well of Task Panes to
spelunk into. On the other hand, the panes that some people do love–such as
Styles and Formatting–remain a part of the experience that you can turn on if
you wish and we won’t interfere with it through "auto" behavior.

Finally, to clarify the developer story: we added the ability to use the Task
Pane in custom solutions in Office 2003 as part of the Smart
Documents developer story
. The good news is that this capability still
exists and, in fact, has been upgraded pretty substantially in Office 12 as

Comments (14)

  1. Centaur says:

    Oh! The Office Clipboard. It drives me nuts. In Office XP, I can’t for the life of me figure out how to disable its popping up on double Ctrl+C. I know there is an option in Office 2003, but in XP I seem to be stuck…

  2. Mark Sowul says:

    Hmm, I do think that PowerPoint was one of the few areas where the task panes made sense (slide design, templates, and animation settings).  Of course if it duplicates the ribbons, I could see why you’d take it out.

  3. Matt Lacey says:

    Woo Hoo!

    Research Pane is still around.  This means I’ll get to keep some of my most productive personal tools.

  4. ChrisC says:


    >The Office Clipboard… drives me nuts… I know

    >there is an option in 2003, but in XP I seem to be stuck

    There is an option, it just isn’t where you’d expect to find it (IMHO).

    hit [CTRL]+[C] a few times until it shows up in the tray

    right-click on the clipboard icon in the tray.

    move mouse over "options"

    un-check "Show clipboard automatically"

      -Chris C.

  5. CS says:
    Thank you for letting the user decide where to put the panes.

    On automatic popping up panes: what about an option to disable the “Research” pane? It still comes up when I <ALT> and left-click, which messes with the “Magic Box”.

    Especially when you try to use the box in tables the only thing you get is the Research pane, which (in my mind) is far less usefull.
  6. This sounds like a substantial improvement for task panes, but I’m still left wondering, what do you need them for? Or maybe the question is, when should a feature use a task pane and when should it use a modeless dialog box?  

  7. Centaur:

    >>The Office Clipboard… drives me nuts… I know

    >>there is an option in 2003, but in XP I seem to be stuck


    >…right-click on the clipboard icon in the tray…

    There’s also an Options button/dropdown menu at the bottom of the Clipboard Task Pane that accesses this setting. After unchecking the autoshow checkbox(es), I recommend you *check* Collect Without Showing Clipboard. That way you can still call up the Clipboard Task Pane to save your butt if you ever do the dreaded two-Ctrl-X’s before Ctrl-V mistake.

  8. "No Task Pane will show up at startup. This includes the Getting Started pane, which has been removed from the product."


    I’d really like to see the UI process for associating an Office 12 doc (particularly Word) with an XML schema.  Brian Jones has done a great job explaining the 2003 UI and the forthcoming XML file formats, but the Office 12 UI remains a bit of a mystery.

  9. Hazz says:

    Without getting into the rules governing when and why there should be task panes, I have to say that in O2003 the only one I consistantly use, is the Styles and Formatting pane in Word. In fact I turn it on in almost every session of Word I open. I appreciated its layout and the options it gives me right next to my active document. So I am glad to hear that it is still available. Also working on portrait documents on a 19" screen gives me some spare real estate to the sides. FYI I use the other side for the document map which I also have open in every session of Word I open. On that note, is the document map feature still in 12 and has its behaviour changed?

    Thanks for your excellent Blog and sharing insights into interface design that are both fascinating and useful.


    Business Analyst

  10. Michael, from playing with it, the only differences between a custom task pane and a modeless userform is that task panes are sizable, dockable and can’t be created with VBA.

  11. Helen says:

    I wholeheartedly second the halleluias. The choices you’ve made sound very sensible – the auto-launching Research pane just drives me nuts, but the Styles and Formatting pane is truly useful.

    I long to see Office 12 in action!

    I’m not sure if this has been asked already, but how much control will developers (VBA or .NET) have over task panes?

  12. I always thought that one of the coolest things about task panes was using them to display information from other back-office apps using the Information Bridge Framework.

  13. C. Shamis says:

    I have disabled the office clipboard from automatically opening 50 times. Yet every time I restart Word, the office clipboard will automatically launch.  This is infuriating!  I applaud MS’s efforts in making the auto-opening feature user-configurable, but if word won’t remember the settings… what’s the point?