Designing Against a Degrading Experience

I'm sure many of you have experienced being the "one who knows about computers." In social and family situations this often means having to help to fix, clean up, or otherwise restore a computer experience which has fallen into disrepair.

There are a million reasons software experiences can degrade: unintended installation of add-ins or spyware and seldom-used programs eating up disk space and memory (or launching on Windows startup) are just two of the popular ones at which people like to point fingers.

Office is not immune to the perils of a user experience which degrades over time. But in Office's case, it's not usually a spyware or a performance issue: it's the UI.

One of the fun parts of my job is going on site visits, in which I have a chance to watch people use Office in their actual work environment. You learn so much about how people interact with software by seeing them use it, in their cubicle or office, along with the other artifacts of their work: calendars, sticky notes, staplers, physical inboxes, piles of forms, etc.

In site visits, I seldom see a real-world Word screen which looks anything like the beautiful marketing screenshots we create. You know the ones--the menu bar at the top with a single untouched toolbar below it and the rest of the screen clean and full of document.

What do we see more often in the real world? Toolbars everywhere--floating over the document, floating outside of the window, docked to the side, sometimes even docked above the menu bar. The menu bar itself tends to get dislodged through an unfortunate click or two and ends up docked to the left side or even floating. In short, the longer and harder people use Office, the more messed up their UI gets.

The reason? Current versions of Word or Excel or PowerPoint tend to reveal more and more of the UI as you go, and seldom does that UI get put away. So, because someone used a picture once, the Picture toolbar is floating, but everything is grayed out because there's no picture in the document. And the reviewing tools are up. And the Table toolbar. And Mail Merge. And Drawing. There are tiny icons everywhere.

But when we ask people why these toolbars are up, they don't know and the top question we get asked is "is there some way to close these without losing the features?" People are worried that they won't be able to find the tools they need again once they close a toolbar, so they just defer to keep it open, using up space (or covering their document) even though they hardly use the features in question.

As a result, one of our goals for the Office 2007 user interface is that Day 1 looks like Day 101.

We hope to walk into a site visit after someone's been using Office 2007 for a year and have it look as clean as it did in the screenshots on the back of the box.

How do we work towards that goal? The main enabler is one of the design tenets of the Ribbon: a single home for features.

Sure, the Ribbon might be a little bigger than a single toolbar, but everything's in there--it's like a flat tax. You give us a little bit more screen real-estate up front (about the same amount as two toolbars in Office 2000 or 2003) and that's all we'll take. Additional features reveal themselves within the Ribbon through Contextual Tabs, and they put themselves away when they couldn't possibly be used. (For example: You can't use the Table Tools if you don't have a table in your document anyway; everything would be disabled.)

Our hope is that we've created a user interface which will stand the test of usage over time--one which doesn't get more complicated just because you're using it.

One which doesn't require you to clean up after the software.

Comments (38)

  1. John Topley says:

    "As a result, one of our goals for the Office 2007 user interface is that Day 1 looks like Day 101."

    Isn’t this the wrong way round i.e. it should say that Day 101 looks like Day 1?

  2. Max Howell says:

    Well it doesn’t really matter which order you put two identical things:

    a == b

    b == a

    But yes, the other way round (day 101 looks like day 1) makes the point clearer.

  3. John Topley says:

    The things aren’t identical in this case though, because the UI has potentially gone through 100 days’ use by Day 101 and could look very different from how it did on Day 1, which is Jensen’s point.

  4. For every few people who made their toolbars float over their document by accident, there’s one who made a conscious choice to move their icons close to where they’re working, by tearing-off menus, floating builtin toolbars or creating a custom floating toolbar – all of which has been lost in Office 12.

    This is one case where you’ve definitely thrown the baby out with the bath water.

    You’d make a lot of people much happier you gave us multiple, floatable, dockable QATs and a simple "Day 1" tool for those who daren’t close a toolbar.

  5. Tyler Reddun says:

    I for one am happy your getting rid of the ‘menu as a toolbar’ that broke so many parts of the standard UI, it never worked right and failed with most accesability. It’s a feature right up there with the dynamic menus.

  6. ThomThom says:

    After reading this blog I’m actually tempted to try this new Office. I’m really interested in thsi new uder interface.

    Mind you, the reason I dropped Word in the first place was that it went crazy the moment I tried to add more than two images to a page. I’m a really basic user of office applications. I write the occational report or letter and I use spreadsheets for my expenses. Nothing fancy.

  7. Another (straight-forward, though radical) way would be to disallow UI customization at all.



  8. For those of you who may think Jensen is exaggerating with the toolbar or "GUI sprawl" comments, he’s not. Just this morning I was working with a co-worker on some Excel reports and she had 1/3 or more of her Excel window filled with toolbars. You can tell, too, the toolbars were never moved from their original locations given all the gaps and spaces between them. And she’s a competent Excel user.

    Here’s hoping the ribbon reins in today’s GUI sprawl.

  9. Lukas says:

    I’d like to Stephen Bullen’s comment.  I’m very particular about UI and screen real estate in particular – please don’t take away my ability to create a comfortable work environment.

  10. Matt Turner says:

    I quite liked the way palettes and features dock in Macromedia products.. well, Flash anyway. Version 6 i believe was the best, before it got too bogged down with fancy graphics that slowed it up.

    Anyway, you could order them into whatever logical groups you wanted (e.g. styling / programming / whatevering) they snapped to each other but each one had a minimize button going on.

    I’m a neat freak when it comes to my personal user interfaces and how they’re setup so this doesn’t really affect me but very interesting to read about it.

  11. Derick Lyle says:

    I like the fact that you are thinking about users who are not confident in their computing experience, and therefore never close, move or otherwise deal with anything the computer does to them. However, as a confident user, I’ve come to hate the novice interfaces that get thrown at me, where I have to interpret the "simple speak" into what I know is really going on behind this, and what I actually prefer to deal with. So, to the points made previously, please don’t take away the power that let’s users be power users.

    Final point, can we look at making docking to the left or right instead of up top really usable? Documents are long, screens are wide (especially the new widescreen notebooks). I’d rather give up screen real estate at left or right rather than lose a paragraph or two and have to spend my life scrolling up and down. Take a leaf out of the Visual Studio .Net book, they got it right.

  12. To add to what others have said about user customization (I want it–and not just on the QAT), disabling or hiding features that are not available makes support that much more difficult. I already spend a lot of time either opening a document containing a table or inserting a table in a blank document just so I can access Table Properties in order to provide a user with explicit instructions (with exact terminology) for solving a table problem.

  13. Jon Peltier says:


    "Another (straight-forward, though radical) way would be to disallow UI customization at all."

    I hope this was tongue-in-cheek, because this is what Office 2007 is already doing. If I couldn’t customize my workspace, it would take me twice as long to do anything. My menus and commandbars are heavily customized in general, and hardly a day goes by when I don’t find a reason to make a temporary floating toolbar to put a couple handy buttons right next to where I’m working.

    Unfortunately, MS is focusing on the beginning users, the ones at Day 1, who will never progress beyond Day 1, and who need a UI nanny to close the unused toolbars. And of course, the new UI nanny puts away the tab I need right before I want to click on it. Why should my Day 101, and Day 1001, look like it does out of the box? One size does not fit all.

    I’m with Stephen and Suzanne on this issue. Though it could become cumbersome, the UI in Office 97-2003 is remarkable in its flexibility and in its ability to improve productivity by allowing tasks to be placed a single click away.

  14. I suspect that the new EUI (and its lack of customiseability) inevitably suits some Office Apps better than others.

    Hopefully we will see a substantial increase in ability to customise (and a Reset button!) before RTM, so that the pain can be eased for the non-casual users of the less well-suited Apps.

  15. David Bosman says:

    "I’m with Stephen and Suzanne on this issue. Though it could become cumbersome, the UI in Office 97-2003 is remarkable in its flexibility and in its ability to improve productivity by allowing tasks to be placed a single click away."


    I haven’t seen the beta of Office, wich seems very promising, but I do hope there’ll be a way to (heavily) customize UI. Please, don’t forget your power users.

    If i may ask, what’ll happen of Word’s fullscreen  mode ? I use (and like) it so much. It’s probably the best way to get rid of all distractions while writing.

  16. Shauna Kelly says:

    I am writing to second Stephen Bullen’s comments. Having several, floating toolbars, positioned near my work, is essential my being productive.

    Floating toolbars are especially important to me when using a Tablet.

    On a desktop PC, a mouse trip from mid-screen to a toolbar, ribbon or QAT at the top of the screen feels like a lot of movement. And it takes a long time. A custom floating toolbar, holding just the tools I need right now, eliminates that problem.

    On a tablet PC, moving from middle to top of the screen is a large physical movement of the hand, arm and shoulder. It can be physically tiring. I find that small, floating toolbars reduce that movement and make me productive again.

    I hope that Microsoft will re-consider its thinking about removing users’ ability to customize Office.

  17. Dawn Crosier says:

    I agree with Stephen, Suzanne, Jon and Shauna. I customize my workspace and float my toolbars to be physically close to where I am working in my document. In the little bit of work that I have been able to accomplish in Word 12, I have found it very labor intensive to switch between the contextual tabs that keep closing just as I am reaching to use them.  

    Word 2003 enabled me to minimize my clicks to get a new object since the toolbar could be available, floating on the desktop.

    I have already placed 15 items on the QAT for working on this one project having to do with graphics. I suspect that the number will grow exponentially as I get further into designing this newsletter and continuing to run across items that are no longer available on the current tabs. (Such as the ability to select several objects, WordArt, Textbox, and Picture and center align them. These tools used to be found on the Drawing Toolbar, on the tear away tab called Align or Distribute.)


  18. Echo Swinford says:

    "We hope to walk into a site visit after someone’s been using Office 2007 for a year and have it look as clean as it did in the screenshots on the back of the box."

    Looking pretty doesn’t get the job done. Just because the interface stays as clean as it was on day one doesn’t make it efficient.

    Add my voice to Stephen, et al. Losing the ability to customize the ribbon and tear off menus and tools is degrading my productivity.

  19. Louis says:

    I use and love the Office 2007 beta, despite the crashes. I’ve been using 2003 since its first beta, and gah, was it feeling stale!

    Anyway, having read most of the comments to this post, I felt I had to reply to correct some assumptions.

    1. The ribbon tabs aren’t customizable, but there’s an Addons spot and an area for frequently used commands, shown at all times, like the QuickLauch area on your Taskbar next to the Start button. (Only this is at the top of your Office window.)

    2. 10x more useful than Smart Tags, there’s a special new floating toolbar that appears above the right-click context menu, and when you hover your mouse near a selection. (With common stuff like bold, italic, etc.) It’s amazing. And as you move the mouse away from the selection, it fades … so it’s not annoying either.

    Plus it looks and feels so much better than in screenshots. It’s something you have to really use to appreciate. If I accidentally start Word 2003, I feel sick, with all the buttons and clutter. (Even one toolbar is too many, compared to the new Ribbon layout.)

    Don’t knock it until you try it, in Beta 2. (Which should be public, I think, like 2003’s.)

  20. One of the most discussed aspects of the new Office 2007 UI has been: "Does it take up too much room?"…

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  25. I missed this awhile back I think. Jensen Harris has a great post on customizing the Ribbon.

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