Computers Can Do That? (Real People Study, Part 4)

Today’s Guest Writer: Rich Grutzmacher

Rich Grutzmacher is a Program Manager on the Office User Experience team. He helped coordinate one of the long-term, real-world studies conducted on early Office 2007 builds.

This is the fourth in a series of entries where I will share with you some of the lessons we learned by following a group of typical Office users for eight months while they used Office 2007 Beta 1 to perform their everyday work.

Last time, I discussed how we used information gathered through extended observation to make changes to the product that address usability issues we normally wouldn’t have found until we shipped the product and would have had to put off fixing until the next version. Today, I would like to share with you how we used the extended usage study to determine whether or not we achieved our design goals for the Office 2007 UI.

One of the primary design goals for Office 2007 UI was to help people discover more of the features that would help them get work done more easily, but that they simply can’t find or don’t realize exist in Office.

You may recall from reading Jensen’s blog that roughly half of the Top 10 most-frequently requested features in Word already exist in the product. There is nothing more embarrassing to a Microsoftie than that Homer Simpson Moment when a friend or family member says, “You mean I can do that in <Insert Your Favorite Microsoft Software Here>?”

In our extended usage study, we found that nearly all participants stated without prompting that the user interface in Office 2007 exposed them to more of the depth of the product. One participant in the study went as far as to state, “Office 2007 helps me find stuff I’m not looking for.”

All of the customers in the study commented that they were using features that they did not use in previous version of Office because they were now “more visible and easier to get to.”

Customers reported finding the user interface as “more browsable” and “enjoyable to browse.” One participant even said, “it’s more fun to search when you can’t find something.” (I personally found that one hard to believe until I saw the video footage for myself.)

Given our deep understanding of how each participant used Office 2003, we were able to verify their statements about Office 2007 by having them show us how they are using Office differently.

An example of this finding was best demonstrated by two participants who never used Conditional Formatting in any of the previous versions of Excel.

With Office 2007, they quickly discovered Conditional Formatting and began using it regularly to perform their everyday work tasks. Over time, they came to depend on Conditional Formatting to do their work. Neither participant realized that Conditional Formatting had been in Excel for the past several releases of Office.

What was most striking about these conversations was how positive people felt about browsing to find new features. They stated that they could easily find and use features they needed most commonly, and then when they needed to use less-common features, they knew how to do so. The fact that the participants were continually discovering helpful features they didn’t previously know about was just icing on the cake.

In the end, this study helped us validate that we achieved one of our primary design goals for the Office 2007 UI. The new user interface helped make many features in Office more discoverable and, as a result, people were able to use more of the power of Office help them perform their job.

Comments (16)

  1. This is indeed good news. The better a UI the less help is required getting the user to the functions they require.

    Paradoxically, this should also be the aim of the help author, through their involvement in UA throughout the software.

  2. This post seems to confirm that the Ribbon concept was designed primarily for beginners; while the interface has been dumbed-down, many of the ‘power’ features have been hidden or removed.

    I would be very interested to read a post explaining how power-user requests have influenced the design. All the evidence I’ve seen is that they’ve been simply ignored.

  3. Ben R. says:


    Which features do you feel have been hidden? Have any features been removed? I haven’t noticed that–at least not yet. I’d be really curious to know which features you’re referring to, though!

    Anyway, I disagree about the interface being "dumbed down." I believe I fall into the "power user" category (I write macros that use field codes, custom properties, and other features of Word, and I answer questions at work about Word on a daily basis).

    The Developer tab is an improvement over the previous UI, and all the other features I use (character and linespacing, the French dictionary, headers/footers, tables, etc.) are all easier to get to.

    In fact, I wish the VBA editor used the Ribbon–maybe in the next version, I guess.

  4. John says:

    One thing I couldn’t find in the Office 2007 beta is how you can insert fields, personnalized fields, document fields, and not just the page numbers/date time. Any clue?

    One great improvement of Office 2007 however is that it doesn’t hide menu items on its own. Found that "feature" terribly confusing in the previous Office versions.

  5. A says:

    Go to the Insert tab, the Text section, and the dropdown Quick Parts.  Fields are hidden there.

    I have to say though, I can never remember where the fields are tucked away.  I sent the location to someone in a email, and now I always have to dig up that email to remind me where to find it.  How is one to know a Field is a Quick Part?  What is a Quick Part in the first place?

    On the other hand, Japanese Greetings are at the same level as Quick Parts.  I would say I’d be much more likely to want to insert a field than a Japanese Greeting, especially as I am not Japanese 🙂

    But don’t get me wrong, after getting used to the new "file menu", this is the only thing I’ve had difficulty finding and remembering.  Overall I like the new interface.  I may not be a power user, but I’m no beginner either.

  6. Keith Green says:

    "This post seems to confirm that the Ribbon concept was designed primarily for beginners; while the interface has been dumbed-down, many of the ‘power’ features have been hidden or removed. "

    I must agree partially, Stephen.  First of all I think I would like the ribbon, except for ONE HUGE FEATURE that has been removed.

    One cannot add a button to the ribbon or get rid of a buttons that one will NEVER USE.

    I am not sure if I am a power user, but I am a long-time business user of all major apps.

    As stated in earlier Jensen blog posts, this intentional exclusion.

    I applaud the intention of attempting to encourage users to explore more features.  However, we have had a similar experience with users in current versions, with the correct encouragement.  When you give people the "purpose" to explore and test a software and look over their shoulder, they do what you want them to do…. explore, and discover features.

    The celebration of an average user discovering conditional formatting, is a demonstration of what can be accomplished when a user is compelled to explore features.  If the same user used the same effort, they could find conditional formatting under the "format" menu in previous versions.  (Which was not hidden at all)

    Well, I may sound more negative than my intent… But the truth is, I would love to recommend the new UI to the thousands of users in our company, but I have real trouble if it will not allow us to customize the ribbons to maximize efficiency for ALL users, power and otherwise.

    I think this is a fair request, since it has been a feature since 0ffice 97 or so.  At least let us have a Ribbon editor that is drag and drop simple.

  7. Mike says:

    I think it is clear from what has been stated as the goal of the new UI – to keep the UI from changing – that it has completely ignored the user, expert or otherwise, in favor of the "experience", which has been narrowly defined by Microsoft as the only experience available.  Rather than emphasize training, which has been the source of almost every problem that’s been mentioned with people not knowing how to customize their UI, the UI has been made as static as possible, and the ability to customize it to the individual’s needs (which would detract from the ‘experience’ and require training to inform people how to use it) has been completely removed.  I still hope with the delay in Office 2007’s release that this hubris will be recognized and that customization will be put back.

  8. Ben,

    "Which features do you feel have been hidden? Have any features been removed? I haven’t noticed that–at least not yet. I’d be really curious to know which features you’re referring to, though!"

    The biggest two, in my opinion, are (a) the (in)ability to customize the controls within the groups to suit my way of working, and (b) the (in)ability to float a set of menus/controls close to where I’m working. (b) was typically done either by tearing-off a built-in menu/dropdown, or creating a tempoary floating toolbar.

    Then there are the menus that have been moved to the ‘Command well’ instead of being on the Ribbon, those that always seem to be on the wrong tab (most often font manipulation), those that have been moved from an efficient and concise format to a dumbed-down verbose format (e.g. formatting line styles, weights and fills of chart items), those that have been hidden deep in the Excel Options stack (Tools > Addins), those that have been deprecated (mostly casualties of the charting rewrite) and those that may simply be bugs (double-clicking a chart item brings up the contextual ribbon rather than that item’s Format dialog).

  9. A User says:

    The ribbon has a lot going for it from a discoverability perspective. Especially since "help" in recent editions has been so difficult to explore and navigate for newbies and old hands alike.

    At the risk of thinking inside the box, I have a suggestion for the next iteration: Put the ribbon behind an "?" icon for use as an index to help, and put customizable toolbars and menus back in the workspace UI.

    Having found what I need, and yes, what I didn’t know I needed, I do not want the help index, no matter how lovely it is, right in my face all day long every day.

  10. J says:

    "Rather than emphasize training, which has been the source of almost every problem that’s been mentioned with people not knowing how to customize their UI…"

    Emphasize training?  Aren’t we out of the age of software yet where we had to read manuals and sit through classes to figure out how to use a stupid program?  Just yesterday I was using a program where the code I was writing was replaced by an error message, and I couldn’t figure out how to get back to my code without closing the program and re-opening it.  Yeah, training would have allowed me to get back to what I was doing… but I’d rather that the program not have done that in the first place.

  11. Mike says:

    Every hour of training saves 7 hours of users trying to figure out something on their own, and that’s assuming they know what they’re looking for.  In the case of learning new features, understanding faster ways of doing something, or just getting the most of any application, training is the only solution for most users.  Clearly many people posting here are not ‘most users’, but that does not mean that any users – power or not – can figure out all of an applications features by osmosis.

  12. Clive says:

    Perhaps more of a criticism of the previous (default) hiding of menu items than a commendation of the ribbon bar.

  13. Andreas says:

    From a user’s point of view, I have used Office for many years now. I was self-thought and became quite proficient with the many features available in the suite. To learn Office I used a very simple technique which I still employ today, that is, I browse every menu item and take a mental note of what’s available (I might even try out the odd feature I stumble across), then, when I need something, I know what’s available and have a feel for where to look for it.

    This technique works very well with most application except those ones that employ things like personalised menus, like Office started using after a while. That completely screwed me around as I expected an item to be in a specific place, but then found that it wasn’t. Luckily I soon discovered that this could be disabled, and, like that awful Office Assistant, I disabled it as soon as I could.

    No, instead of introducing a new user interface experience, what we need to do is teach users how to learn an application, any application, and not change the user experience of one suite in a dramatically and radical way so that a user has to learn a new way to learn.

    Basically every time major GUI changes like this take place users will have to shift rethink their workflow. This takes time, time that they would have been better of using on learning the new features, not to relearn the old as well as the new.