Office 2007 simplified

When Microsoft called to tell me that the Office user interface team wanted to meet, I figured that'd be fun. After all, I've often said that I consider Office, and especially its interface, to be a bigger success for Microsoft than Windows. And yet, I wasn't all that impressed with the new look when I checked out Beta 1.

Over the soft-baked chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies that I specifically requested, Jensen Harris, group program manager for the Office team, and I walked through not only the new interface in Beta 2, but the process that Microsoft went through to get there. A pleasant surprise, aside from the cookies, was that many of the complaints I had after Beta 1 are gone because Microsoft has since made more than 1,000 changes to the Office menu.

What I found most surprising was the way in which those changes are made. In my little software company, we decide UI issues by talking, arguing, yelling, and me finally tossing someone over a desk. Redmond's a little more scientific.

Turns out that the "Let Microsoft know how you use Office" opt-in program, where most of us sys admins automatically click No, actually has a number Yes replies. Like over 100 million in the last three years. This data lets Harris pull up some interesting spreadsheets. These sheets can take a snapshot of, say, a week's worth of clicks -- about 30 million or so -- and then break that list down into precisely where each click happened: which commands were used most, which short cuts, which buttons.

Microsoft has combined that data with loads of user-focus programs. Starting with Microsoft's own employees, the Office team has deployed Beta 2 on the desks of thousands of nontechnical workers -- whether they wanted it or not, which is important because the Office team didn't want biased opinions. These workers are monitored using focus groups, surveys, and even a method Harris calls "The Truman Show." That's where employees agreed to have cameras positioned in their offices and cubicles so that Microsoft could monitor not just how they worked but even how their eyes moved across the screen in response to specific tasks.

And all that added up to one core focus for the UI team post-Beta 1: simplicity. Harris commented that because the features provided by Office have evolved so much in the past five years, the team's focus has primarily been on providing clean access to all of them. But in doing so, the developers lost sight of Joe and Ethel User, nontechnical folks who simply need Office to do their jobs. Folks who don't like to go hunting around for new buttons to features that have existed since Word 97. It's those folks to whom they're paying specific attention now.

So the new UI in Office 2007 is as much for these users as it is to incorporate the new features that 2007 offers over 2003. And while I only just got the Beta 2 update code, I've got to say: From here it looks like they've succeeded. At least along that part about being more simple.

For one, the new menu ribbon incorporates icons and menu items that don't change based on usage like they do under 2003. They're always there. Icons are also larger and more easily identified. Even sexier, when you mouse over an icon, a small descriptor box pops up, explaining in brief which feature the icon represents and as well as providing a link to a help page directly related. That really made me smile, because a pathological avoidance to the Help Search menu is responsible for a large chunk of tech support calls.

And once it's deployed, Microsoft is issuing a number of online training references for sys admins to use to get users up-to-date on the new software quickly. One that I really like is the Interactive Command Reference (ICR). That's a Web page off the TechNet site that'll pop up an interactive Office 2003 window of, let's say, Word 2003.

If you can't find Track Changes in Word 2007, go to this site, call up the Word 2003 window, find Track Changes there (since you know where that is), and then click Show in Word 2007. The ICR will then pop up a Word 2007 window with the location of the feature clearly marked both in menu and icon form. Very cool, and it should certainly cut down on your help desk call volume.

I'll post more on my impressions of the new Office 2007 UI once I've had more serious play time with it. But so far, if consistency is what the Office team is looking for, it looks like it's hit the mark.

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