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Beyond the Fat Wire

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tuesday evening - a preview of the new Office interface

As a preliminary, let me say that I witnessed a Jakob fan-boy moment. Walking toward the room where the event was to be held, Jakob was walking some paces ahead of me. A guy (who was your typical 30-ish traditional corp tech type (apparently)) passed in the other direction. "Jakob Nielsen", he exclaimed, "I'm a big fan of your work!"


This was a talk by a guy from Microsoft who talked about the interface design for the upcoming version of some components of Microsoft Office (particularly Word, PowerPoint, and Excel)

Although both Jakob and the Microsoft guy were billed, in reality, Jakob did a 15 minute introduction and then the Microsoft guy spoke for about 40 minutes. 20 minutes of Q&A followed (thus, it ended at 6:30, not at 6:45)

The idea behind the evening was for the evolution of interfaces, away from "command oriented" actions and toward "results oriented" actions.

Jakob's introduction went through a brief history of the user interface:
  • batch commands
  • line mode commands
  • fullscreen text-only terminals
  • GUIs
All of which, he pointed out, are command based interactions.

Back in 1992, he said he had predicted that by 1996 interfaces would have evolved into a non-command form. Now he's saying maybe that will happen by 2010.

The idea of a non-command interface is what he calls "agent oriented" task performance, where the interface does what the user intends rather than what the user commands. I presume that the system gets trained by the user to know what that intent is. The idea is that complex commands get performed to the user's specification without the user having to detail those specifications each time. (at least, that's my interpretation. Jakob didn't actually say that. However, I can't imagine he means that software intuitively or telepathicly interacts with the computer user)

So, on that note, he turned the room over to the Microsoft guy, Tim Briggs.

More history, as he reviewed the Word interfaces from version 1 to the present (Office 2003, which is 2 years old already. I hadn't realized it'd been that long).

The point of the review was to illustrate the complexity of the interfaces ... Word has grown to have 300 commands and 31 toolbars. People can't find the commands they want. They asked for functionality that already existed (but they couldn't find it, or didn't recognize its function if they saw it). The UI is hard to browse. Core functions took too long for users to accomplish.

Design goals:
  • Keep frequent and familiar tasks efficient
  • Help people discover best practices (that is, help them find the fastest way to do things)
  • Make browsing for familiar goals (tasks, commands) easier
  • Let people focus on the output (their end document), not on the UI
Redesign principles:
  • Streamline the core functionality
  • Consolidate the UI areas
  • Apply 3-stage formatting, which means:
    • gather bundles of features together into, sort of, palettes to apply to a given portion of a document
    • demonstrate what's possible (that is, show previews of what something will look like if they apply a feature/palette)
    • dialog access for tweaking (that is, give people access to power tools if they want them)
He walked through some of the interface. The Menu bar at the top of the apps is now a "ribbon" with tabs. So, instead of clicking and looking at dropdowns with flyouts from the dropdowns, you get a big "toolbar" (though it's not called that now) with buttons/widgets. These "ribbons" have "function chunks" (meaning only that all the, for example, text formatting widgets are grouped together).

These "commands" are not organized around a scenario or object. There is supposed to be better labeling and feedback to the user. Basically, this means there are now "super tooltips" ... not only does mousing-over display a label, but it's a super-label that include what the widget is for and what it might be used to do.

Tools will be contextually relevant. This means that, for example, if you insert an image into a Word document, if you select that image, you'll THEN see image editing/formatting tools. Then, when the image is no longer selected, those image tools will disappear.

Finally, he went through what he called "Effect of a new experience". That is, that from their pre-beta testing of the new Office interface, that they expect people will experience a drop in productivity at first. Productivity (and user's perception of his/her own productivity) will stay low while the user keeps using the new UI for the old tasks he/she is accustomed to doing. The user's perceived productivity (though, at this point, he started getting fuzzy about whether he was talking about real or perceived productivity) will start to increase as the user starts discovering how to accomplish new tasks with the app.

Actually, this last part sounded suspiciously like a pitch to partners that MS wants to have buy in to the new version of Office.

Not too much of note in the Q&A. One person asked about Mac users of Office, and the answer was, basically, they are still screwed. Someone asked about accessibility for people who don't use a mouse. The answer was "it'll be better" (but, that's easy to say, isn't it?)

Someone asked how they decide what new features to include. This led him to talk about "SQM" (pronounced "squim") -- system quality management, which originally was to provide MS with information about application crashes. Now, they use it to gather feature usage.

You know that feature/option in MS products to participate in a "Customer Improvement Program" or "Feedback Program", sometimes hidden under "Service Options"? Well, by saying "yes", you are agreeing to send Microsoft information about the commands and features you use in the MS product.

One guy asked a question that seems to me to typify the difference between this event (the User Experience 2005 event) and, say, ETech (O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference from last spring).

The question was, what has the interface done to prevent the questioner's big pet peeve. The pet peeve is people making headings in a Word document by applying text formatting, rather than by applying a structural style. Of course, there's no real answer to this.

And, of course, in the context of html, I also would want my authors to use the markup I specify rather than something else, even if the result "looks" the same on the web page, in the end.

But, the point is, this guy is worried about how to force people to use a piece of software (in this case, MS Word) in a way that HE thinks is correct.

ETech, on the other hand, was all about molding any tool so that THE TOOL does what you want. That the user is the one that rules the software, the hardware, the application, the task -- and not the other way around.


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