Catching the Plane

One of the most challenging aspects of developing the new UI has been making sure that everything ends up loaded into the airplane before it takes off. Confused? Let me explain.

Sometimes I think about shipping Office like an airplane taking off. Our job is to load up the plane with the right passengers, the right luggage, enough soda and snacks, professional pilots, lavatory service, and great in-flight entertainment.

But once the airplane takes off, it’s gone–there’s no turning back. It’s going to land at its destination regardless of if all the pretzels came on board. The insect which flies in through the airplane door two seconds before it closes ends up halfway around the world at the plane’s final destination. On the other hand, a piece of luggage which is late to the plane by thirty seconds misses the destination entirely and can only be returned with a great deal of cost and effort.

Our job, then, is to make sure that all of the features find their way onto the plane before it takes off. With so many features buried in menus, toolbars, Task Panes, context menus, and the command well in Office 2003, there are thousands of moving parts to track. Sure, we’ll make sure that Bold finds its way to Sydney, but what about “Collapse Subdocuments?”

We have a number of systems in place to triangulate this problem and to help ensure that we don’t leave anything behind. We have documents which track every visible piece of UI in Office 2003 in all languages and editions and where it’s moved to in the new version. How do we create these documents? Someone manually goes through every menu and toolbar, noting everything they find.

We also have a SQL database which tracks all of the commands programmatically and can spit out a list of where in the UI each feature is accounted for. This database also backs the various migration tools we’re making available such as the Ribbon Mapping Tool–a clickable simulation of the old UI and new UI used to help locate any command in the product.

Just like with baggage moving through the bowels of the airport, being routed, security screened, and weighed, each feature has a set of trials it goes through before it can be marked as “ready to go.”

For example, each top-level feature needs a Super Tooltip: a brief summary of what the feature does and why you might want to use it. We wrote well over a thousand of these. We also created tooltip pictures to help better explain certain features.

Every feature needs an icon in several sizes and color depths. In most cases, the hardest part of this process is developing a metaphor to illustrate what a feature does.

Every feature needs to be checked to ensure that it uses proper spelling, branding, and capitalization. We use Title Case for features exposed through the Ribbon. In dialog boxes, we use sentence case for labels and Title Case for push buttons. This review is underway internally as I write. Every label fixup in the product then needs to be translated into every language in which Office will ship.

Help then needs to be written about the location of each feature, and that help needs to be translated into each of our supported languages.

We have to get all of Office’s features accounted for, beautified, documented, localized, and on the airplane before the cabin doors close and the plane taxis to the runway.

It’s a part of the job that requires painstaking meticulousness and coordination between many people to ensure that the luggage isn’t lost.

Comments (31)

  1. David van Leerdam says:

    Cool metaphor Jensen, and great for us readers to have some insight in these complex software delivery logistics!

  2. David Walker says:

    Hope it all goes well!  

    In contrast, another Microsoft program (Visual Basic 2002 standard) has customizable toolbars — but some of the icon buttons that appear on the standard toolbar aren’t anywhere to be found in the "customize" dialogs.  

    In other words, you couldn’t create a custom toolbar to duplicate the standard toolbars, since the parts you needed weren’t available anywhere.  (Well, actually, I once moved an icon from a standard toolbar to my customized toolbar, then I "reset" the standard toolbar to let it have that icon back.  That was the only way to get the icon I needed.)

    So, there are many places in a complex program where the details need to be enumerated and checked and double-checked.  I hope you make sure to put all the icons into Office 2007’s "customize toolbar" mechanism.

    David Walker

  3. Francis says:

    Mmm, impressive but seems roundabout.

    Why not use the ListCommands feature built into Word 2003? That exposes everything, including commands that are, by default not in the UI, but are relied upon by many users. E.G., Insert Style Separator (ALT+ENTER), Find Again (SHIFT+F4), or the old-style Styles dialog (not Styles and Formatting.)

  4. Ben R. says:

    Jensen, in the past you alluded to features that have been removed from Office over the years.

    I’m really, really curious: are there any features from Office 2003 that are being dropped because no one used them?

  5. tino says:

    Hmm, why doesn’t do the ui-teams at the Windows division think of such problems decribed in your articles? It’s hard to understand why the interface of Vista is still a disaster when MS can do such great work as seen in Office 2007!

    Please Mr Harris: Help the Windows guys! 😉

    Great pleasure to read this blog. Thank you.

  6. Tim says:

    Just a recommendation, but it’s probably not a good idea to place the idea in your users’ heads that using your software is akin to going on a commercial airline flight.

    After all, most people don’t have good memories of that experience 🙂

  7. Ilya Birman says:

    (In Russian, there’s no such thing as Title Case. Titles go "Blah blah blah".)

  8. Fritzly says:

    Thanks for the interesting reading. I like the new interface very much although I have to admit that I am one of the few people (3/4?) who preferred the first, more radical one. Any chance we will have the option to switch to the original? Kind of a reverse of "Classic view? 🙂


  9. Bob says:

    Sounds like you are preparing us for a flight delay. Are you suggesting that this plane might not take off on time????

  10. Roxanne (Word UA team) says:

    I like your metaphor, Jensen. I thought it was interesting that you put documentation late in the sequence: "Help then needs to be written…" The problem is that the Help plane is usually taxiing down the runway while the Office plane is still being fueled. Help files lock down early to allow time for localization, which needs to be complete in time to make it back on board the Office plane — since we sim-ship in so many different languages.

    As you can imagine, documenting something that isn’t quite final is a bit of a challenge. Especially in a release like this, where so much is new, not just in the UI, but in terms of new features also.

    How do we even attempt to provide Help content in these circumstances? By relying less on what I think of as "rote documentation" and relying more on customer feedback and the Web. For some in-depth thinking about this, see Mike Kelly’s blog at And, visit the site where Office help gets published:

  11. A User says:

    "Someone manually goes through every menu and toolbar, noting everything they find."

    After the plane arrives at its destination, let us hope improvements in discoverability will reduce time spent at baggage claim doing the same thing.

  12. To David Walker:

    You wrote: "In other words, you couldn’t create a custom toolbar to duplicate the standard toolbars, since the parts you needed weren’t available anywhere.  (Well, actually, I once moved an icon from a standard toolbar to my customized toolbar, then I "reset" the standard toolbar to let it have that icon back.  That was the only way to get the icon I needed.)"

    In Word, at least, if you press Ctrl while dragging a button from one toolbar to another, it is copied.

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  16. Interesting metaphor: shipping software is like flying commercial airlines from A to B. Haven’t thought of this previously, but it totally makes sense. What’s a web-based system then? I can think of a taxi ride: even if you miss one..

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