Hands up everyone who likes Office 2007’s user interface? Apparently everybody does, including the billions of people who tested during the long decades of its genesis, or so said Microsoft on launch day.
It might be the biggest re-hash of the Ui, but it’s by no means the first one. Every version of Office since its inception – and beyond into the days when they shipped as standalone apps – has featured a strange form of tectonics. Menus moved here, features buried there, sometimes inspired, other times just annoying, change from the Rain Men who spend their lives worrying about usability.
Now, after a hundred good reviews from journalists, the ordinary users are having their say, and the verdict isn’t five stars. So much for reviews.
At the heart of the 2007 version of Office is the Fluent interface , and within that the ‘ribbon’, which clumps menus into a number of conceptual groups. This, Microsoft says, makes it easier for Office programs to present a large number of features. It’s a sort of visual hierarchy for the things people do with programs such as word processors and spreadsheets.
I’ve always wondered why so many journalists raved about this innovation. Accepted, word processing encompasses a huge number of relatively complex tasks that keep some office managers up at night, but the average user probably still uses a tiny fraction of what Office has on its menus.
By reinventing the Office UI, Microsoft forced these users to hunt once again for their favourite handful of features, understanding them through the ribbons.
The issue is as it has always been. It is the vendors that have the strongest interest in changing UIs because that’s one of the ways that desktop app are marketed nowadays. Office 2007 is better than the previous version because it has a nice new interface that cuts down on clutter, etc and so on.
What the user really wants, by contrast, is something that does more or less what the last version did but which costs less and perhaps has a few features added that they can’t avoid having to use (the move from the .Doc format to .DocX XML for instance). What they actually get reminds me of supermarkets that insist on changing product aisles every now and again just to force customers to meet with unexpected ‘purchasing opportunities’ they wouldn’t normally bother with.
So having spent the best part of a year or two getting people used to Office 2007, Microsoft will no doubt change the UI again in some new way, forcing a learning curve down the software U-bend that is the average Office buyer. As long as it flushes money, that’s fine.
Now take a look at a new generation of simple office applications, built on web technologies, such as the Buzzword word processor , now part of the Adobe stable. You wouldn’t propose it as an answer to every word processing problem, but Buzzword and its ilk do raise some interesting questions. Could most people – even most businesses - make do with a simple suite of applications built out of portable web components? Using it raises no usability issues whatsoever. In fact, if anything, it reminds you of Word as it was in the early days of the GUI.
In the meantime, let’s be pleased that at least the accursed Word paper clip and puppy dog have gone for good. Just as I was starting to like them.