Friday, March 30, 2007

Microsoft Office 2007 commentary

OK, this isn't particularly "political" commentary, so forgive me. (Disclaimer: I worked at Microsoft for many years.)

First, a bit of typewriter history. We're all used to the quirky and odd layout of keys on our keyboard, called "QWERTY" after the keys in the top left row. It's a truly bizarre arrangement of keys, something noticed by everyone that learns to type. Legend has it that QWERTY was designed specifically to slow typists down, to prevent typewriters from jamming up. So along came Mr. Dvorak who invented the Dvorak keyboard layout, which was demonstrably more efficient than QWERTY for people that mastered it. Yet somehow, despite being better, it never caught on. People learned QWERTY, and Dvorak just wasn't enough better to justify re-learning how to type.

Which brings me to Office 2007. I've been using it for a little more than a month now, and (metaphorically) it feels like they "upgraded" my keyboard from QWERTY to Dvorak, but without giving me anything new or noticeably better in return.

Microsoft noticed that the most common feature requests they received were for functionality that was already in the product, but which people somehow didn't discover. As a result, the biggest new feature in Office appears to be that they've redone the UI, getting rid of the menu bar in favor of big "ribbons" (basically souped up toolbars) that do a better job of exposing the functionality in the product.

Making the existing functionality more discoverable certainly is a reasonable goal. It's just about 10 years too late. Good or bad, most people have figured out the basic UI model at varying degrees of proficiency. Designing for the "novice" user may have been a wise goal then, but today there are too few "novice" users compared to experienced users. If the old UI was a keyboard layout, it was QWERTY.

This could have been fine, except that they removed the menu bar from most (but not all!) places in the UI. This move is especially puzzling because there is no reason I can see that the menu bar and the ribbon cannot co-exist, and the rest of windows has menu bars.

The net result is that existing users are actually quite a bit less efficient while they hunt through the ribbons for functionality that they know exists, and used to know how to access. Keyboard shortcuts have changed, the whole taxonomy of command layout has changed, with only a very few minor functional enhancements apparent throughout the suite.

But I suppose it's not all bad, I suppose. It may not be an improvement, but they made performance slower than previous versions too!

No comments: