Well I just cant stop gnawing at the bone. I saw an interesting post on Joshua Gans site on feature creep (Bottom line we want more features when we buy products and fewer when we get them home). Anyway in responding to it in the comments thread I challenged Joshua to a shootout on Office 2007. Since I liked Office 2007 when I first loaded it up and thought Id figure out the things I couldnt work over time, and yet grew to dislike Office 2007 more over time (I’m thinking particularly of Word and outlook) I thought maybe Joshua would too. But he still likes Office 2007 so I challenged him to a shootout.
We wont of course take it very seriously but I thought some light might come out of an exchange of views, so here goes. Joshua’s response follows mine – all over the fold.
A change is always costly. So much of the value of an application is your own familiarity with it its features (and how to access them) and its foibles that an upgrade is always a trade-off. Joshua comments on how pleasing Office 2007 is to the eye. Well the smooth fonts and things are nice I guess, the colour scheme is the right one too. Light blue backgrounds are a good contrast to the buttons and they impart a cool and efficient air.
There are quite a few nice new features for instance when you paste from one document to another, you can set it to default to text only or to the destinations formatting or the formatting of the origin. I find this handy whereas one used to have to use paste special. There are quite a few small enhancements of this kind which are welcome.
Probably the most general comment I can make it ends up being about the ribbon is that though I thought that Office 97 was a great product ten years ago, there was one thing that it did that I noted with considerable regret. Its navigation was pigmy Mac. By that I mean that Microsoft got the GUI bug from Apple and tried to make as much as possible of point and click. So in Office 97 secretaries (remember them?) were always mousing their way up to buttons at the top of the screen to make minor formatting changes.
Now you might recall that when GUIs were a controversial new way of working with computers, the old DOS diehards used to say how inefficient it was because you could do more with quick keystrokes than you could with a mouse. They were right of course. But the problem with DOS was the difficulty of learning the commands. The GUI fixed all that but was marginally less efficient for the really proficient. However marginally less efficient can make a difference when it comes to lots of keystrokes. And what the Mac did there was smart. In addition to standardising commands (where DOS tended to use function keys which Ive never used despite being 10 odd years into the Windows world from my last Mac) they also used the GUI to teach you keyboard commands. So that when you pulled down the edit menu you would see the key commands that corresponded to cut paste etc.
Where the DOS commands were often arbitrary with numbers instead of letters, the Mac used mnemonics – Ctrl+C has a good mnemonic association with copy and x associates with cut. And the exceptions you just learn. Cntrl + V = paste I guess because its the next key over from c and v. And there were lots more of these. I recall Ctrl N allowed you to nest your paras. Ctrl T had hanging indents. (just like the top of the T). And on it went. And when you found yourself reaching for the pull down menus they typically displayed the key commands for you as you chose the action from the menu so next time you could try the key commands. Microsoft Word 1.0 for Mac Microsofts first application would do this too IIRC. So you could use the GUI to navigate or you could use it to navigate and learn the key commands.
That didnt carry over to Office 97. There was much less use of the menus to teach key commands, and when they were provided the key commands mimicked the menus. So to put in a footnote I ended up learning the command Alt+I to pull down the insert menu and then n for footnote, or h for hyperlink. Not as intuitive as a single keystroke with some combination of Ctrl, Alt or Shift pushed down. One could customise key commands, but that was complicated and not a surefire thing. You could make a macro visually or otherwise you had to know what their command inside the customise dialog was and the customisable commands often had to be guessed from a confusing list – and there were plenty of commands I never found.
For one whod learned a lot of this already and who also knew the menus I needed to know in the places I needed to know them, the ribbon is a step backwards. Perhaps its better for someone trying to learn the commands afresh – I dont know. But sitting in Word 2007 now I type Alt+I and a little box pops up that tells me to keep typing the office 2003 command. So I do with h and get a dull tone telling me no dice. So it doesnt work. But even more to the point, what if I didnt know the command in 2003? I want to find it out. The ribbon seems to offer no help with this kind of thing. As if perhaps its trying to discourage it.
For me anyway, the ribbon is such a small step forward in the ways that it is an improvement I actually wonder whether the main point of the ribbon is not ease of use but the development of an interface that might make people whove learned it more reluctant to move to an open source program. (Does anyone know if theyve got any patents or design patents on it?) . Office 2007 does come with a more user friendly way of customising buttons to do things you want, but as ever the list of things you can customise in this way is partial and the same problems occur if you try to customise key commands. I actually find it harder to find the commands I want to customise to my own key strokes in the new system.
And one more thing about the ribbon. As Joshua has shown us, feature creep means that its impossible to make navigation entirely logical. If you were trying to insert a table of authorities into a Word document which of the ribbons tabs would you choose of these?
Home || Insert || Page Layout || References || Mailings || Review || View || or Developer.
I dont know about you but Id go to insert. After that Id be stumped, but its actually in references. As is inserting lots of other things. Like footnotes, tables of figures. Now I sympathise with the designers after all I’m sure its ambiguous. By my answer to that would be to do two things. Firstly Id realise the unlikelihood of an improvement for a seasoned user from this new interface and Id give users the option of which interface they use and/or build some Word 2003 learning centre where you can learn where the new commands are. Going to help is generally much more time consuming than this and Microsofts help is as useless as ever.
And also whats this business about a command having to be in one place and one place only what about locating things which could be in one of two places in both places or pointers to them? Especially if theres a place some people would definitely go looking? So you should create a footnote from either the insert or the references ribbon.
Then there are the things that never fail to amaze me about Microsofts upgrades. One can appreciate that they like to get things out the door quickly but this was a major upgrade. There are so many improvements that could have been made easily and bugs that could have been fixed like the tendency of the dictionary to revert to US spelling no matter how many times you instruct it to default to Australian spelling. Like the difficulty of backing up settings and putting them on another computer. Why, after ten years, doesnt autocorrect have a button or two letting you back it up? Why isnt autocorrect a whole lot more powerful than it was in 97?
When I was going to post on this more comprehensively I kept a list of these kinds of things which grew quite long. But I cant find it but there are lots of examples like those above. Of course if one saw a lot of diligence in progressively improving the program, one could forgive the odd thing not going the way youd like, but after four years, I expect a company with the resources that Microsoft has got to have done better than it has.
Over to you Joshua.
Well, let me start by saying that despite Nicks concerns, he cant hate Office 2007 too much as this document we are editing is in it. He has used the blog post feature and that will allow a clean publish right to the Club Troppo blog. Incidentally, I dont use Word for that purpose and prefer Windows Live Writer. In collaborative work, I have used Google Docs and Spreadsheets (here is an example).
Anyhow, the issue as I see it is how do we find the features we need. I remember when they used to all be in menus. I never really used key strokes like others had because for many years I had a Mac. I remember the wonder of Word 5.1 as it was called that introduced buttons back in 1993 and I never looked back from that. Then I had a horrible time with Word 6.0 that in its first version would take unbelievable amounts of time just to save a document (30 minutes or more) and had to wait until that bug was then. Since that time, Office has looked pretty much the same.
What excited me about Word 2007 was precisely the fact that it was so different in feel. I was immediately struck by the fact that for basic formatting, I didnt have to go up to a menu or a toolbar. Instead, if I highlight a word, I would immediately have options available right there next to the mouse. There is font, bold, italic, font size and paragraph formatting stuff. It is really easy to use and stays there an appropriate length of time. There is no hunt.
What also struck me as it did Nick is that the upper toolbar was far more constrained. Rather than let you customise to your hearts content, all that has been taken away. It is true that some things, such as insert footnote are not where you first think. But that problem lasts the first time, then you learn where it is. But as for the rest they are quite easy and while I was miffed at not being able to customise, I soon got over it and came to appreciate the layout given. Ultimately, it has expanded the number of functions I will use.
Specifically, styles are much easier to operate. For example, when you hover over a potential style button, the relevant text changes to match that style. So you can see it in action before committing to it and being forced to go back and undo if you dont like it. This has made me more aggressive in my style formatting.
Exporting and mailing pdfs is very easy too. Microsoft have bypassed Acrobat and so that takes some load off. So the files convert to pdfs instantly and appear straight in Outlook, ready to do.
Perhaps the biggest change for me is that the View options allow me to take advantage of a larger wide screen monitor. You can move to a page view, two page view, have to parts of a document side-by-side or two documents side-by-side very easily. No resizing of windows and such. There are buttons for it all. This makes editing a breeze.
Finally, on Word, I am able to use the new equation editor (although not in this blog post nor in docs that require compatibility with Word 2003-XP) which makes writing those very easy without a new window. For serious stuff though, I still use Mathtype. And there are lots of users of that out there judging by the thousand visitors to this post of mine telling you how to do it.
Of course, we are harping on Word. The rest of Office has changed too. Excel is equally easy to use and Power Points options are all nicely arranged. But the big one is Outlook. Outlook 2003 was a leap ahead in layout. The new Outlook is great again. My favourite bit is that you can read Office docs right in the email viewer without opening a new window. And if you do open them, they open into a convenient read view which makes flicking through them very easy. The Calendar has a nice colourful layout and it is really easy to enter appointments and adjust their length graphically rather than working out precise times.
In summary, there is a transition to Office 2007 but overall it is worth it. It ultimately brings simplicity and enhances your ability to use the features that are there. I wouldnt go back. But if you do want a classic menus with it you can get that too (click here).