Anne Taylor, Microsoft New Zealand’s Product Manager for Office systems, talks to The Channel about the research that drove the design of the 2007 Office system’s new user interface.
The Channel - Why did Microsoft decide to change the user interface in Office programs?
In previous releases of Microsoft Office applications spanning more than 15 years, people used a system of menus, toolbars, task panes and dialog boxes to get their work done. When Word 2.0 was first released to market in 1992, the basic structure of tools and commands was born and this dictated the interface design for future iterations of the product. This structure worked well for Word 2.0, when users could choose from less than 100 commands with most menus holding less than ten items on each. However as the number of features continued to grow, so too did the commands.
The release of Word 6.0 was a turning point in the development of the user interface. It introduced right-click context menus, tabbed dialog boxes, wizard assistance and toolbars along the bottom of the screen; and this was closely followed by the release of Word 95 and the squiggly red line that guides our spelling.
Office 97 then set software sales records by introducing command bars, menus and toolbars that could be dragged around screens, driving the number of toolbars up to 18 and doubling the number of commands. While hierarchical menus were introduced at this point to make more room for these commands, it did little to simplify the program.
While the release of Office 2000 introduced user interface mechanisms such as adaptive menus that show the most popular commands and rafted toolbars that could share line space, the features continued to grow still. By the launch of Office 2003, ‘Clippy’ the office assistant was used to provide contextual help and task panes were used in an attempt to bypass menu and toolbar structure altogether. While these features helped, the basic user interface structure of Office programs had changed very little in comparison to the growth of the program.
With the 2007 Office system promising to have 10 times as many features, we knew the user experience needed to be more intuitive and contextual. The design team wanted to make the user interface results oriented – allowing users to be able to use the full range of features easily.
The Channel – How did Microsoft go about designing the user interface?
Before the launch of Office 2003, a lot of the design behind the application had come down to guesswork. Microsoft had to rely on bits of feedback and ‘guesstimates’ to build the user interface. But with the launch of Office 2003 also came the Customer Experience Improvement Program, allowing Microsoft to collect anonymous data about those Office users that chose to be a part of it. 1.3 billion sessions were analysed including 352 million command clicks, along with three years worth of taped user behaviour that had been researched. This allowed Microsoft to work out what commands and shortcuts were being used and how they were used.
For the first time, Microsoft had data on which to base the design of its user interface. For example, ‘Paste’ was the most used command in Microsoft Word and therefore this became a big button of the left side of Word’s tab. This data enabled the design team to make informed decisions about where features should go.
The Channel – What benefits will this have on individual productivity?
With the background of research and behavioural data, it now means that we have a product centred on people and their behaviour. It is intuitive and contextual – organising and presenting capabilities in a way that corresponds more directly to how people work. I know it has relieved at least an hour of administration time within my day.