The Spelling Check is Complete

Yesterday, I mentioned the new contextual spelling feature that is part of Office 2007. Writing the post reminded me of a story from years past…

One of the things we’ve tried to do from time to time is reduce the number of modal alerts that pop up as part of working with Office. Most people don’t spend the time to read the text of message boxes–as a result, unless there’s an action that needs to be taken, most people just click OK.

Long before we had the Customer Experience Improvement Program in Office 2003, we relied on data from something called the “instrumented version.” This was a special build of Office we gave to a few hundred test subjects to collect a small amount of objective information on how people used the software. It was not nearly as complete or as representative as the CEIP data, but it was better than nothing.

So, when a team was tasked with reducing the number of alerts, they developed a magic formula for deciding which alerts to target: look for the most frequently-appearing alerts (based on the data) which contained only an OK button. Because we know that any alert with just an OK button is simply informative, and we know that most people don’t read the text of alerts, knocking just the first 10 or 20 off the list held the promise of reducing the number of dumb alerts seen by Office users by billions and billions.

Dutifully, the team removed these seemingly useless alerts. The very top one on the list seemed like an absolute slam-dunk to remove: “The spelling check is complete.” It’s a totally unactionable alert–just an extra click people have to do every time they check their spelling. A perfect example of a useless, intrusive dialog box, interrupting your work and getting in your way. Bad design. Right?

Within hours, the complaints started to roll in. Within days, the complaints became deafening from all corners. It wasn’t long before the alert was put right back in the product.

Why? People who were spell checking their document manually had no idea when the process was complete. If you’ve grown up expecting a dialog box to come up once all of the spelling errors are corrected, and now the software just sits there silently–well, it’s no wonder people thought the program was just broken. Or very, very slow.

Spell check is one of those great features that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is you clicking the spell check button. The middle is the computer conversing with you about potential misspelled words and giving you an opportunity to fix them. And the end is the computer telling you that the process is complete.

It’s a truly collaborative, uncomplicated interaction between user and computer. The “spelling check is complete” alert is a form of exactly what dialog boxes are named for: dialogue. The computer telling you that it’s finished rounds out and completes the process. It’s no different from a checker at a grocery store saying “Here’s your receipt, thank you for shopping at Thriftway.” It’s a very human way of ending a transaction.

I guess the meta point here is that it’s hard to do interaction design by formula. Not many great works of art are achieved through Paint By Numbers.

Comments (49)

  1. Roland says:

    Why not display a non-modal balloon ToolTip to notify the user that the spell check is complete?

    Of course people want to get notified, but the notification should not be modal (unless it’s critical). The problem with OK message boxes is that they are modal.

    Another message box in Word that’s annoying is the one that appears when no more text occurrences could be found. Why not display a non-modal balloon Tooltip in the text box of the Find dialog box? WinXP even has a new API for this.

    Thank you,


  2. Francis says:

    These dialog boxes are also problematic from a usability perspective. Even though they are modal, sometimes the focus still gets shifted to another part of the application. This strands keyboard users, as there is no clear way to transfer focus back to the dialog without clicking.

    Why not have OK dialogs that disappear when the user clicks anywhere or presses a key in the application?

    Or you could even use the status bar for what it was designed: communicating the status!

    Another possible solution would be to have dialogs that expire–they count down or fade away if the user takes no action.

  3. Ben R. says:

    This touches on the one feature of Office that truly infuriates me. πŸ˜‰

    The Find dialog box and the Spell Check dialog box are both floating boxes that cover the document.

    Sure, they have code that automatically TRIES to move the dialog box out of the way, but still–whenever I do a spell check or a find, I’m constantly having to drag the dialog box around to see the text underneath. And the automatic jumping-around of those dialog boxes is tremendously annoying on its own, because you constantly have to move the mouse to compensate.

    Why not create PANES for these features? Pressing Ctrl-F or doing a spell check could open a task pane on the right. Firefox does a brilliant job with its Find interface–a simple  pane that appears along the bottom of the window.

    Wherever the pane would be located, the key point is it would NEVER cover the document.

    I know this sounds small, but I do Find & Replaces all day long. Having a dialog box that jumps around and STILL manages to cover my document drives me crazy.

    Oh, and just so this post isn’t entirely negative, I should say I’m thrilled at the new interface in general. I just wish this had been changed, too.

  4. shahnhogan says:

    Yeah, I think a non-modal notification would work well. I agree the user needs to know when the process is done, but I shouldn’t have to click OK, just to dismiss a dialog. That doesn’t make any sense!

  5. Roland: I don’t think a non-modal balloon would make sense here, because spell-checking is a modal task. It’s not a background task that needs to unobtrusively notify you of its status – it’s a direct continuation of the spell-check process itself.

    That said, perhaps a spell-check scan that finds no spelling errors should exit quietly – there was no modal interaction in the first place.

    Ben R.: I think Office 2003’s help windows showed why panes are often a bad idea. I would hate for a simple reviewing operation like spell-checking to cause my document to resize, repage and reformat itself.

  6. Francis says:

    Avner: I agree that Task Panes have been a pain. However, just because they were poorly implemented does not mean that the idea has no merit.

    The latest version of Acrobat has a delightful, Task Pane-like Find feature: instead of forcing the user to click "Find Next" repeatedly, it finds ALL occurences of the search term and shows them *in context*, much like a super-index. This has saved me innumerable hours looking through 1,000+ page PDFs.

    The same could be done in Word for Find/Replace, and maybe even for spelling/grammar check.

  7. laurie_g says:

    I do understand the feel for the need of the dialog box, however, I think that a balloon in the taskbar would suffice. Just something that acknowledges that the task has been completed and then gently disappears seems perfectly sufficient.

  8. Paul Morriss says:

    I would be curious to hear which ones you did get rid of, and which no-one complained about.

  9. Dylan Greene says:

    Show a "Spell check complete." message, then fade it away.

    Like the toast notification, but not locked to the bottom right corner since that’s where I expect to see system-wide notifications and IM pop-ups.

  10. David Low says:

    One of the new user interface elements I have really liked in the past year is the information bar that was introduced in Internet Explorer with Windows XP Service Pack 2.

    The information bar is able to convey information to the user in a highly visible fashion without disrupting the workflow of the user.

    Key to the visibility of the information bar is the location and color of the bar, which naturally draws the user to the information that is presented on it. The status bar, in comparison, due to it’s location and color, I believe is not as effective in conveying important information to the user.

    I would recommend against dialogs that time out because if the user is distracted from the display for some period of time (for example, a telephone call), the dialog could expiry before the user had even seen it.

    I believe it is important for the user to know that a spell check is complete and I feel that that the information bar would be a natural UI element to convey that information.

  11. James Schend says:

    Ben R. –

    Try OS X where saving a file is now done with something called a "sheet."  The theory is that the modal dialog is visually attached to the window’s title bar, so that when more than one is open at once, it’s obvious which Save dialog goes with which window.  The "sheet" opens from the top of the title bar straight down over the document, and is about 90% opaque.

    But here’s the problem:  I don’t know whether I’m a retard or not, but I need to see the document I just typed so I know what name to give the file.  I’ve been so used to, over the years, selecting Save, then being able to read the document to figure out a good filename that Apple’s new way of doing it just pisses me off.  Even worse, you can’t turn off "sheets", nor move them.  You have to cancel the Save action, figure out your filename, then select Save again.

    Here’s what I would do.  When you initiate a spell check, keep the correction window up (just greyed out) even while the program is just searching.  Show each correction in turn, never hiding or moving the correction window.  Then, when finished, close the correction window.  That gives a clear message that the spell check is complete without any dialog required.

  12. Andrew says:

    Apple’s non-modal notification system is nice: it pops up a translucent information box that fades out. The Growl framework has nice examples of it:

  13. Jade Ohlhauser says:

    I agree with Ben and others, a find in the spirit of the Firefox deisgn would be a great improvement. To me it would almost be worth the price of admission for that alone.

    Any comment Mr. Harris?

  14. Charlie Williams says:

    This doesn’t need to be all or nothing.  

    These two things are true:

    1) The "The spelling check is complete" dialog is rediculously annoying.

    2) I want to know when the spelling check is compete.

    Who went and decided that these two things are mutually exclusive and the only option is to choose the one that annoys the user the least?  

    There are plenty of examples where information can be displayed to a user without messing up his mental flow and/or making him click a button.  

    This version of Office is breaking new ground in user interfaces.  I don’t understand how you can come up with a great UI concept like the ribbon to replace menus (which is no small feat) and can’t find a way around purely informational modal dialog boxes.  I don’t get it.

  15. The incremental find feature in Visual Studio is a nice variation on the Firefox text-search feature.

    in VS2005 type CTRL+I to active the incremental-search mode (the cursor changes to indicate the new mode). Then type what you are looking for. The selection jumps to the next occurrence automatically. ESC backs out.

    Adding a small search-pane à la Firefox would probably make more sense than the invisible text-field that visual studio uses. (heck, even Emacs shows you what you are typing while doing an incremental search)

  16. Abigail says:

    Thank you for knowing the difference between "dialogue" and a "dialog" box! πŸ™‚

  17. A User says:

    Status bar anyone? Like, you know, for status notification.

  18. Escamillo says:

    Some of you are really making this too complicated, IMO.

    Spell checking a document is an interactive modal process invoked by the user.  The modal message box notifiying the user that the process is complete is sufficient, easy to implement, and more effective than the other proposals.

    And I don’t see any of the negatives you guys ascribe to it.  It should be modal since the operation is modal.  It’s not "distracting" the user from the document, because the user is engaged in the spell checking operation.  What’s to be distrated from?  Nor is it "annoying", for the same reason.

    Non-modal tooltips, automatically fading message boxes, and the like are harder to implement and less effective.  I think simplicity is the best option here.

  19. Escamillo says:

    I agree that Office’s Find-Replace UI should be redone.  I like the text search pane method that Acrobat Reader uses.  

    (Firefox’s Find bar is nice, but Word’s Find-Replace functionality does more stuff, too much to squeeze into such a bar.)

  20. Charlie Williams says:

    Escamillo, your workflow is not necessarily the same as the next guy’s.  That’s whay they interview more than one person when researching feedback mechanisms.  For instance, I’d prefer to only be notified if there are spelling errors.  I know I started the process, but forcing me to click OK when it’s done is annoying.

    I think having extraneous dialog boxes only reinforces the average user’s behavior of not actually reading the text before clicking.

  21. Escamillo says:

    @James Schend

    "But here’s the problem:  I don’t know whether I’m a retard or not, but I need to see the document I just typed so I know what name to give the file.  I’ve been so used to, over the years, selecting Save, then being able to read the document to figure out a good filename that Apple’s new way of doing it just pisses me off.  Even worse, you can’t turn off "sheets", nor move them.  You have to cancel the Save action, figure out your filename, then select Save again."


    *THANK* You!

    Yes, Apple’s sheets piss me off as well for the exact same reason. πŸ™‚  I run into this all the time when saving both documents that I’m writing as well as documents that I didn’t write (like web pages).  I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a widely held feeling, but seldom voiced because sheets are supposed to be so "Neat-O"! LOL  (And because Apple has a "can do no wrong" reputation regarding UI, so users probably think *they* are in the wrong rather than the sheets mechansim itself.)

    Sheets are cool in other scenarios but not in the the File-SaveAs scenario. πŸ˜‰

  22. Escamillo says:

    Charlie Williams, you say, "I think having extraneous dialog boxes only reinforces the average user’s behavior of not actually reading the text before clicking", but does this dialog really qualify as "extraneous"?  I’d say that the usability feedback showed otherwise.  Microsoft did remove the truly "extraneous" dialogs, but had to put this one back because it wasn’t as "extraneous" as they had thought. πŸ˜‰

  23. LGFN says:

    When your’e saving a document, why dosn’t a dialog box appear informing you that the proccess is complete? Especially if your’e saving a large document, you can get all cracked up seeing that the program has stopped responding, only to notice a little while later that it has just finished processing your command.

    Well, this dosn’t really happen in Word real life.

    Instead, what happens?

    In the status bar you can see something like "Saving…", and up untill that progrees bar down there reaches its final destination, you don’t worry about you’re computer’s health.

    So. why in the world. should the Spell Checker be any different? and for extra credit, microsoft can add a beep or any other notification sound (or even some unique sound), notifying you that you can continue your work.

  24. Milan says:


    First off, I just want to say (for the people who wait for ‘The spelling and Grammar check is complete’ dialogue box): you’re dumb.

    My idea is not so great but, better something than nothing. Ok, I was thinking that, instead of a dialogue box, and a pop-up balloon, the spelling check would be shown as a load bar down in the status bar. I hope you understand me. For e.g: When Word saves a document, or saves a draft, he displays a tiny loading bar and some words saying" saving…" in a nanosecond. He’s actualy saving a draft of that document you’re currently writting on. Well, the spell check could do just that: display a loading bar when it’s working (people will notice this better with long documents), and when it’s complete, it would simply say "Spellcheck complete", and possibly play a sound.

    Some people will simply have to get used to better document managment. Hope you all understood me!

  25. Milan says:

    Very interesting post Jason. After significant usability obstacle like that is removed from the application and you get so many requests to put it back – that usually means something is wrong with the original design. I think that’s exactly what happened in this case. Even more, as pointed out by Ben and others, Spell Check and Find and Replace are currently the biggest usability annoyances in beta2.

    I would hate to see the current implementation stick around for next 3-4 years until the next major Office release, so please do something πŸ™‚

  26. Charlie Williams says:

    Escamillo >

    "I’d say that the usability feedback showed otherwise.  Microsoft did remove the truly "extraneous" dialogs, but had to put this one back because it wasn’t as "extraneous" as they had thought. πŸ˜‰ "

    They put it back because it’s better than having no feedback whatsoever.  I’m simply saying that the best solution is somewhere in between no feedback and a modal dialog.

  27. steveg says:

    Adobe Reader actually has 2 find interfaces. The most excellent Search task pane mentioned above (Shift+Ctrl+F), and the Find modeless dialog (Ctrl+F). I use both.

    As for spellcheck progress, why not use a Progress Bar. Put a % next to it, and when complete print "Spell Check Complete". The bar could be placed in the status bar or elsewhere in the interface (if you have the status bar hidden, how would you know the status?).

    The more I use Office 2007 the more I’m looking forward to Office 13, where the new interface will have matured nicely.

  28. Eyal says:

    I agree with the others that this should be a non-modal balloon tip. Yes, the spell checking is a modal *task*, but it doesn’t mean every dialog it presents should be modal. Actually, I think none of the spell checking dialogs should be modal – they should all allow the user to make corrections in the text without closing the dialog, and the last dialog should definitly be a balloon – It’s a notification.

  29. Jan Kucera says:

    I agree a bit with Escamillo.

    It is simple. If the task the user is performing is modal, than there is no disturbtion with modal dialog.

    If the task runs in background, than modal dialog is not the right idea.

    I myself (as long as I think) do read the OK-only modal dialog boxes when the text is not long.

    The "spelling check is complete" can be read at a glance and therefore I don’t think the dialog belongs to the unread ones.

    However, the fun is over when running on the server side. No modal dialog should be able to show up when the user is automated application.

  30. David Walker says:

    Charlie: Spell Check would tell you that "rediculously" is spelled wrong.  It’s "ridiculously".

  31. Andrew Eberhard says:

    I think it would be nice if the dialog was just a transparent overly that displayed for a second or two but which required no action to dismiss and which didn’t bar users from immediately jumping to another task.  Just my $0.02.

  32. Lex says:

    Non modal balloon tip please!! Or one of those do not show this agian check boxes. I really wouldn’t miss it

  33. Tobias says:

    Really, sometimes I just cannot believe what I read here!

    Dont get me wrong: I love the blog and most! of the changes you do in office. But a modal Message is a modal message = bad. And a message with the information of 0 is bad.

    Please read "The human computer" by Jef Raskin on this topic! There are better ways!

    Of course people complain if you just delete the box. There has to be a feedback! But I dont have to focus, read and klick it!

    What about a Information-Line at the top of the Screen like the IE an Firefox does it (ActiveX or Plugin-Download).

    What about highlighting the document-backgroudnd in green when ready just like the great type-and-search-feature in firefox gets read when there is no word.

    What about moving "with a shake of the head" like the Apple-Login-Screen does when you misstype your password….

    There are so many better ways to do both: Give Feedback and not be in my way….

  34. Tobias says:

    I dont agree with the "modal dialog leads to modal confirmation"-talk around here.

    Even if a task is modal it does not mean the confirmation-message has to be modal too. This would create another (second) modal dialog which is totally unnecessary.

    Pleace choose a way to tell people that the task is over without forcing them to focus, read, understand, move (the mouse) and klick once again…


  35. Charlie Williams says:

    > Charlie: Spell Check would tell you that "rediculously" is spelled wrong.  It’s "ridiculously".

    Spelling correction much appreciated.  I feel you’ve contributed greatly to this conversation.  I’ll think of your valuable input every time I spell "ridiculously" correctly.

  36. Charlie Williams says:

    > Charlie: Spell Check would tell you that "rediculously" is spelled wrong.  It’s "ridiculously".

    Spelling correction much appreciated.  I feel you’ve contributed greatly to this conversation.  I’ll think of your valuable input every time I spell "ridiculously" correctly.

  37. GregM says:

    Christian, in VS2003 (I haven’t loaded 2005 yet), look for

    Incremental Search: mysearchtext

    on the status bar.  I hope they haven’t removed that in 2005.

  38. [ICR] says:

    Reading some of the comments I am swayed that the modal dialog is not as evil as I first thought.

    I am in favour of a "toast", or message appearing in the toolbar that appears just to the right of the Proofing button (switching the language button and the Proofing button around to make it lay out nicer). It stays visible until the user types something or invokes another action, making it as lasting as the modal dialog and it does not need to fade after a certain amount of time, as it is not covering anything in the document. You can alternativly dismiss it by clicking on it.

    To make it clear when using the dialog box to spell check, the dialog box should "zoom" down towards the proofing button, like the Find dialog used to (but no longer seems to unfortunatly).

    Although thinking about it, what the hell is with the dialog box when clicking the Proofing button anyway? It already displays a tick, surely you could dissable the button or at least change that to a balloon tooltip. The mileage to dismiss the dialog from down in the toolbar is far too much.

  39. AbC says:

    Mr Hunt, The SpellCheck is complete … This message will self-destruct in 3 seconds.





    (there goes your $1500 machine)

  40. Sjoerd Verweij says:

    My vote goes to a "Do not show this message again" checkbox.

  41. Stevbe says:

    How many times do you see a dialog before you always click OK  … how many people call for support saying … "I got some kind of message …" but they can’t tell you what it said? Popups need to be informative in a way that lets you know that something other than standard behavior happened. A fade out balloon would be nice as an indicator that, well, everything worked just they way it should but we thought we should let you know. Don’t start the fade until I do something else with the doc or if I click on the balloon make it wink out of existence. As for placement of the spellchecker dialog … please scroll the document, don’t move the dialog.