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Strategic insights
Office 2007 - A Usability Revolution

Written by on May 27, 2006

I have now had the chance to use Office 2007, and I have created a number of documents with it and analyzed how much more efficient the new interface is. The verdict? It is a revolution in terms of efficient usability.

It looks strange, but it quickly feels like home

The new toolbars is very effectively making you feel like a beginner, suddenly you cannot find the simplest thing - like how do you open a new document. The common "open" icon is completely missing. You also need to learn how different things is grouped together.

But, after a few minutes of being lost, you start to get hang of it. You start to feel comfortable, and even more interesting, you start to feel in control. With the old Office (and other office products on the market), you are never in control of your work. If you do something special, you feel like you in a battle of menus and settings.

Take making numbered list: If you want to, say, make a numbered list with roman numerals it would take a long time, that is if you can ever figure out how to do it. But with the new office you simply select that as you list style.

The difference in usability is staggering. Using FITTs, GOMS and HICKs we can calculate just how much of an improvement it is.

Example: "selecting the items you want, and turning them into a numbered list - with roman numerals".

  • Old Office: 15.04 seconds
  • Office 2007: 8.65 seconds

    (42% improvement in efficiency)

Not only is the new interface much more efficient, it also empowers you to do new things. To take advantage of the many new features of Office 2007.

On-demand text formatting

A really exciting element is the "MiniBar", a on-demand text formatting menu, that pops-up when you select some of the text. It special because it can really boost your productivity. Take a simple thing like making bold text.

With previous versions you had two ways of making bold text. You could either use a keyboard shortcut, which involves switching between your hand and your mouse, or you use the bold icon in the tool bar. This takes (after selecting the text):

  • Keyboard shortcut: 2.5 seconds
  • Icon in toolbar: 4.02 seconds

Using the MiniBar this operation is 20% faster:

  • MiniBar: 2.0 seconds

I admit that half a second isn't much, but when every UI operation is 20-40% faster you can finish your daily tasks with 2 hours and 42 minutes to spare. That is like taking every Friday off, and still get the job done.

Note: A number of people have compared the MiniBar to SmartTags. But the two are not alike. SmartTags utilized the contextual menu (where you had to open it to see it), whereas the MiniBar is an active element.

Interface calmness

Another surprising thing about the Office 2007, and specifically the toolbars is that they give a sense of calmness. The old interface was a visual mess. Every single element was in a constant battle for screen space.

The new interface seems much more uncluttered. The dark interface (of Vista/Office) calms your eyes - even though it does take a little while to get used to. The new Calibri font (default font face in Vista/Office 2007) is very readable.

Some usability problems too

Not everything is brilliant and fantastic. There still is a number of usability problems.

First of all there is a poor "out-of-the-box" experience for existing users. The problems is that the change is so drastic that you feel lost. I admit that the feeling is quickly replaced by the feeling of being in power, but the first 30 minutes of use is not a good experience. We all know how resistant people is to change.

Read also: Habits and Expectations can Render Usability Tests Invalid

Another problem is lack of space for toolbar elements. Take the style bar. it sure looks nice, but you cannot read the style descriptions (an so far I have found no way of expanding the text).

Then there is rather peculiar problem. Since Office 2007 features "Live Preview", you often find yourself spending time waiting for the preview to render, before you click the button. "Live Preview" is great for when you don't know what you want. But it gets in your way when you do know - even though there is nothing stopping you from just clicking the button in the first place. I expect that the problem goes away ones you have grown more accustomed to the program.

You also got a problem of "modes". Every usability practitioner knows that forcing people to work in modes is not a good thing. But, that is exactly what the new toolbars do. You switch between groups of toolbars to do your work.

It is not a problem if you are simply writing a document, then you only need the "Home" toolbar group. But, if you are reviewing a document, you constantly have to switch between "Home" and "Review" to get your job done.

BTW: Why have a toolbar called "Home", give it a useful label as "Formatting" instead

Publish your work

One really exciting things about Office 2007 is the publish feature. You can now publish your work directly to your blog - and use Word as WYSIWYG editor. This is a great thing. I always write my articles and reports in Word because using a "textarea" is very limiting.

I have been puzzled by the lack text editing capabilities in blogs. A blog is about writing, and not being able to have writing tool is literally a disaster.

It a bit like when 37Signals made Writeboard, a collaborative writing tool with no tools for writing. I simply don't get that.

Thankfully, Word 2007 solves this (and soon a whole bunch of other Office products will too)

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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