Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past (Why the UI, Part 2)


This is the second part in my eight-part series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided to pursue a new user interface for Office 2007.


Today, I want to take you on a journey. A journey that starts back into the cold recesses of the mid-1980s, back into the days of EGA and serial port mice and the MS-DOS Executive.


Microsoft Word 1.0 for Windows shipped in 1989 after a long development cycle and was designed to run on Windows 386. There’s not much more to the program than what you see here, but it gives you an idea of how far Word’s come. The Berlin Wall was still up but if you squint your eyes, you can see the core of today’s Word UI already present. There’s an application-level menu bar, which Windows evolved from the Mac’s top-level menu bar and the bottom-of-the-screen menu display of Microsoft’s DOS programs. Word 1.0 also includes something not seen often in user interfaces since PARC: the toolbar. First used by Microsoft in Excel, it might look like there are two toolbars in Word 1.0, but in reality only the top bar is called a toolbar. Interestingly, the bottom row of buttons is called the “Ribbon”–something we didn’t discover until I went back and made these screenshots some number of months ago. It’s a small world.



(Word 1.0 – Click to view full picture)


By the time Word 2.0 hit the market in 1992, the basic structure of the Word user interface has already solidified exactly as it is in Word 2003 today. File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table, Window, Help. A “Standard” and “Formatting” toolbar. Here’s a program that was in design more than 15 years ago and yet the basic user interface has remained stable all this time. (I was in junior high school at the time, programming on my Apple //c.)



(Word 2.0 – Click to view full picture)


Yet, the thing was, this UI worked well for a program like Word 2.0. It had fewer than 100 commands, and because the Word team was able to plan the ideal menu structure for their program, the organization made sense. The toolbars were simply efficient duplicates of functionality found in the menu structure–no features existed only on toolbars. Browsing the menus was straightforward and fast–most menus had less than 10 items on them, and no menu hosted any fly-off hierarchical menus.


Word 6.0 was a runaway hit. Capitalizing on the popularity of Windows 3.1, this was the turning point in Word’s competition with WordPerfect. In terms of new user interface evolution, Word 6 introduced right-click context menus, tabbed dialog boxes, wizards, and toolbars along the bottom of the screen. The number of toolbars jumped from two in the previous version to eight in Word 6, and the menus became more full as features were added to the product.




(Word 6.0 – Click to view full picture)

Word 95 was the first 32-bit version of the product, designed to ride the wave of hoopla from the Windows 95 launch in August 1995. Although it was pretty much a straight port of Word 6, one small, innovative feature was introduced that most people would agree they wouldn’t want to live without: red-squiggle underlined spell-checking. Many people cite Word 95 as the last in a generation of simpler, trimmed-down, pre-Internet word processors.




(Word 95 – Click to view full picture)


While a small team had been working to port Office to the 32-bit OS and eventually shipping Office 95, a much larger team was working on what would become Office 97. Office 97 was a huge blockbuster, setting software sales records. Chock full of new features, Word 97 marked the beginning of a new stage of super-rich productivity apps.



(Word 97 – Click to view full picture)


This richness took its toll in complexity, however. Office 97 introduced “command bars”, an ultra-customizable user interface in which menus and toolbars were really the same thing. Every menu and toolbar could be dragged around to every side of the screen and floated or docked. Feature designers within Microsoft took full advantage of this new technology, with the number of toolbars rocketing up to 18 and the number of commands on the top-level menus nearly doubling.


Arguably, the most important UI decision made in Word 97 was a simple one: introducing hierarchical menus. In all previous versions of Word, menus were a single list of items–easily scannable, easy to navigate. Excel, taking a cue from 1-2-3’s labyrinthine UI, had previously introduced hierarchical menus and though there was an internal struggle between the development teams, eventually the Excel model prevailed and Word 97 got multi-level hierarchical menus.


Why was the decision made? Well, the top-level menus in Word were full. Although an ever-increasing number of features were implemented only on toolbars, some features still needed menu entries and no room was left for them. Wrapping commands into multiple levels made more room for new commands. More room meant more features.


The downside, however, was clear and eventually terminal: increased complexity. It’s much more difficult for people to form a scanning strategy with hierarchical menus: you have to keep track at each moment which levels you’ve visited and which you’ve haven’t. What was once a simple structure to visualize was now a more complicated, branching structure. Browsing for features was now less like looking at a shopping list and more like traversing a complex data structure.


Word 97 was the first version in which we started to see signs that people were feeling less in control of the program. Office 97 was a huge hit with both individuals and companies, but It was also marked the beginning of a long series of press stories accusing Office of being “bloated.”


(How interesting that today some people hearken back to Office 97 as being some sort of ultra-simple software panacea and how different that is from how people viewed it at the time.)


Next time: How Office worked to reduce the perception of “bloat.”

Comments (36)

  1. Brad Corbin says:

    Jensen-

    I know you had a full post on this a few days ago, but to prevent all these inane comments "duh, you’ve done this before! huh, huh.", you’d better change the post title slightly, and put a disclaimer at the top of each of the repeat posts. How about something like:

    Classic Posts: Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past (Why the UI, Part 2)

    (For those who weren’t around when I first started this blog, I am re-running some of the original posts that explained the reasons for the UI change. This post originally appeared at [URL].)

    I personally think it is great to re-visit these classic topics. You could even do a mix of old/new stuff on a regular basis. Its pretty obvious from some of the more recent comments that many people HAVEN’T gone all the way back and seen where we started.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. dave says:

    I remember Wordstar 1.0 running on a machine with DOS 4.2! And that was only in 1983 a mere 23 years ago – how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself but how fast things have changed too!

    Thank goodness we don’t have to worry about putting .pl80 .lm10 .rm15 before we can start typing!

    Nice refresher as to why we want Office 2007 sooner please!

  3. Markus says:

    I am using Word (2003) regularly, and it is the second-most-frustrating program  I know (the most-frustrating program is Outlook).

    One of the things that irks me is that many commands can’t be reached via the menus, but are hidden in toolbars or other hard-to-find places. This violates one of the basic assumptions I "learned" when first using windows, namely, that every command should be reachable by a menu.

    Since a hieararchical menu system should be capable to host a nearly unlimited  number of commands, there is no good reason not to put every command into a menu.

    A related annoyance is the absence of key-shortcut-information for toolbar buttons. Take one of the most commonly used functions, "copy format" (or whatever it is called in english, my germany word

    calls it "Format übertragen"). I suspect that there is some form of alt-ctrl-shift-v/c magic that invokes the command, but i haven’t been able to find this out, at least not using the build-in help system (which, for "Format übertragen", does not even mention the command. maybe nobody else uses it?)

    For functions only found via dialogs, such as "insert unformatted text" (which is use constantly when pasting text from a browser into word), it is the same problem — maybe there exists a shortcut, but how am i to find out?

  4. Brian says:

    Word for Windows 2.0 and Word for Macintosh 5.1 were the best word processors ever written. Hands down. I would still use them today, if I could. In fact. Word for Mac 5.1 still runs under OSX in Classic Mode.

    I miss the simplicity of those tools. Am I the only one?

  5. PA says:

    "It’s much more difficult for people to form a scanning strategy with hierarchical menus: you have to keep track at each moment which levels you’ve visited and which you’ve haven’t."

    Not to mention it’s physically more cumbersome (does Windows BTW let one select the bottom most objet in a sub-menu by moving directly diagonally towards that, or do you first have to move yourself horizontally to the sub-menu?).

    I don’t know how familiar you are with the current Mac versions of Office, but they utilize less hierarchial menus than Windows version. For example Footnote and Caption are directly accessible in the Insert menu, whereas on the Windows version they are hidden in a sub-menu if I remember correctly.

    Any information about the future of UI of Mac Office would be interesting, too, as the Mac OS top menubar doesn’t work too well with the ribbon concept. Is the Mac BU following your work at all?

    Looking forward to the remaining parts!

  6. "I miss the simplicity of those tools. Am I the only one?"

    Yes. 😉

  7. The Office User Interface Blog shows interfaces from old to new in part 2 of an 8 part series of what…

  8. Jensen Harris is posting an interesting series on the history of the user interface in MS Office. In…

  9. Martin Westphal says:

    Very nice history lesson – I still remember working with word 6.0….

    By the way : What happened to Word 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 ?

    Martin

  10. bookie says:

    My prediction for tomorrow’s post: http://blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/archive/2005/10/10/479123.aspx

    Any bets?

  11. phuong says:

    Xin chao, Minh den tu HL, minh mong muon duoc lam quen voi tat ca cac ban. Thanks you

  12. phuong says:

    Xin chao, Minh den tu HL, minh mong muon duoc lam quen voi tat ca cac ban. Thanks you

  13. phuong says:

    Xin chao, Minh den tu HL, minh mong muon duoc lam quen voi tat ca cac ban. Thanks you

  14. This is the third part in my eight-part series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided…

  15. Aaron Bregel says:

    "Word 95 was the first 32-bit version of the product, designed to ride the wave of hoopla from the Windows 95 launch in August 1995".

    This is not actually correct.  Microsoft shipped a 32-bit version of Word 6.0 and Excel 5.0 about a year before Office 95.  Basically it was a 32-bit SKU of Office 4.3 but it still had a 16-bit version of PPT.  It was built to run only on NT 3.51.  In the box along with x86 was a version of Office for the DEC ALPHA and the IBM PowerPC chips as those were the other flavors of NT at the time.  Later Microsoft shipped a Dec ALPHA version of Word/Excel 97.

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  17. I had the privilege of presenting to some sixth formers at Eton college today about a career in IT. …

  18. With Jensen’s museum of Office Past