Microsoft Office 12

For a couple of months now, sildenafil I’ve been following (and contributing to) the message boards at my web host, Total Choice. The other day, TCH-Thomas pointed out a blog posting at PC World talking about the new Office 12 — the latest, and supposedly “greatest” iteration of the worlds most infamous word processing software and related suite.

First, before you continue reading, you should jump over to the PC World blog and at least look at the pictures of the proposed Office 12 suite, so you have some idea of what I’m going to be talking about.

You’re back? Okay good. What did you think? Do you like the new interface (this is the part where you get to submit a comment; this makes the blog more interactive ;)).

My first reaction is that cautiously negative. As I look at the graphic, I can’t seem to find the equivalent functions for features I use frequently, like printing, inserting tables, and inserting graphics. I’m sure these functions are available, but I wouldn’t know how to use them the first time I opened Word. So I have to admit that my “cautiously negative” first impression comes simply from the recognition that the world’s most popular word processor should be intuitive. This version of Word does not seem to be intuitive, so that is a red flag.

This switch to a new user interface (UI), is the first major UI change since Microsoft released Office 97. For almost 10 years now, the Microsoft (MS) Office suite has looked basically the same. Of course, each new version has added some graphical differences, but the core application has basically remained the same. This is the first time in a decade that MS is considering a fundamental shift if Office’s UI.

Such a dramatic change to the UI carries some major risks, in my opinion. As PC World points out, MS could either be leading the pack in the new cutting-edge of UI design for Windows applications, or it could be a big flop, which would be a huge hit for MS’s major cash-cow product. With the importance that the Office suite has on MS’s bottom line, that is a pretty significant risk.

It seems to me that it will be hard to get the average daily Word users to buy-in to the new UI. These users for the most part are the office workers who use Word to write corporate correspondence, make newsletters, and such. I think that many of these users would be totally put off by a new interface; these are the same people who complain that Word 2003 was too different from Word 2000, and they wanted Word 2000 back because they were more familiar with it. (For this reason, the only supported version of the Office software at my company is Office XP; we never upgraded to 2003 because too many users complained that it was too different.) If your everyday users won’t switch, then MS has a major problem.

I consider myself to be a Word expert. I know how to use many of Word’s more advanced features, and I’m sure that I could use the newest version for a couple of hours, and then know how to do all of my projects. But I’m not sure I want to use a product that has been “dumbed down”–which is what the new Word looks like. Its as if MS is trying to make it more appealing to novice users.

However, here we encounter one of the fundamental problems of software design: Feature-rich software applications are complex by nature. It is very difficult to design a simple interface for a highly-complex software application. If you want a simple interface for novice users, then you provide that. But advanced users expect an advanced interface. These days, advanced users expect that there will be more than one way to accomplish a specific task.

For example, look at a current version of MS Office (i.e. Word 2000 or later). Offhand I can think of five different ways to make text appear in bold:

  1. Type the word. Highlight it. Right click on the highlighted area. Select “Font”. Select bold. Click Ok.
  2. Type the word. Highlight it. Press Ctrl + B on the keyboard.
  3. Type the word. Highlight it. Click the bold button on the tool bar.
  4. Press Ctrl + B on the keyboard to enable bold. Type the word. Press Ctrl + B on the keyboard to disable bold.
  5. Click the bold button on the toolbar to enable bold. Type the word. Click the bold button on the toolbar to disable bold.

The point is that Word is a complex piece of software, and you will have different users who will use each of the different methods outlined above. So when you dumb-down the interface, you have to make it simpler. That may result in the removal of three of the five listed methods. Then how does the user who used one of those methods feel about the new program? If your average user thinks that they can’t do things the way they are used to, they will dig their feet into the ground, and you’re going to have a hard time forcing the “upgraded” version on them.

It will be interesting to get a beta version of the new Office. My gut reaction is that I’m afraid that I’m going to feel betrayed by a newer version of Word that dumbs down the interface to the point that I no longer want to use it.

Then again, I decided I didn’t want to use Word anymore after I was introduced to a year ago. But I’ll still be following this with interest.

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