Q&A: Communicating Effectively With “Active Documents”

INDIAN WELLS, Calif., May 26, 1999 — Microsoft today announced the availability of Vizact, a new Microsoft Office 2000 application that “activates” documents, allowing users to improve communication and reduce information overload by building interactive Web pages. This innovative new product brings the power of the Web to users, yet it requires no sophisticated programming skills.

To get a clearer picture of what this product means for today’s knowledge worker, PressPass spoke with Karl Jacob, Microsoft’s Product Unit Manager responsible for shipping Vizact. Jacob, a pioneer in Internet multimedia, leads the Document Activation Group at Microsoft, a team working to build tools that make it easy for users to communicate effectively using rich, interactive documents.

PressPass: What is Vizact 2000 and what problem does it solve?

Jacob: Vizact 2000 is a new Microsoft Office application that creates activated documents. Active documents are those that use the dynamic nature of the Web–employing features such as motion, timing, layered information and interactivity–to help people communicate more effectively. Vizact 2000 helps solve the problem of information overload by creating documents that don’t overwhelm the user with information they don’t need, yet makes it easy for them to locate and use that information when they do need it.

PressPass: What does the name



Jacob: The name encapsulates the idea of visual activation, or allowing the user to control the movement of elements, when they appear and disappear, and how they react to the user’s mouse. We chose
because we are pioneering a new category and we wanted customers to know this is an entirely new approach to creating documents.

PressPass: What spurred the development of Vizact 2000?

Jacob: About 18 months ago, we realized from our conversations with Office users that there was no consistent solution across all documents to the problem of information overload, even with the most current productivity tools. Nothing addressed all of the user’s needs. Nothing was easy enough for the average Office user to put to full use. No application to reduce information overload took advantage of the familiar Office interface. Also, we were motivated by the realization that the PC is an incredibly powerful machine, and that the way to solve the problem of information overload is to bring the PC to bear on this problem. At the core, our concern is to help users, knowledge workers, take full advantage of the PC.

PressPass: Tell us more about document activation?

Jacob: This is a new way to look at documents. The term
“active documents”
came out of our conversations with customers and industry analysts while we were trying to describe the basic difference between standard documents and these new types of documents. Standard documents can be printed on a printer and look just as they do on screen. Activated documents use the power of a PC to make documents better and to reduce information overload. For example, they show information only when the user needs to see it, and they expose varying layers of information over time, so the user is not overloaded with extraneous information. This extra information can include text, graphs, diagrams, and information that flows into documents and goes away when the user doesn’t need it any more. We’re pleased that customers and analysts have immediately picked up on document activation as a great descriptor of what they need to reduce information overload.

PressPass: Why are customers asking for a program like Vizact 2000?

Jacob: We surveyed 850 Office users. Across the board, regardless of industry affiliation or size of organization, information overload came up as an issue. Sixty-one percent of these customers said they wanted to take advantage of the type of features they see on the Web — information that appears when needed and disappears when not needed — to impress their audiences and make their documents rise above the sea of information. But they said they had no idea how to use this technology.

PressPass: What else led Microsoft to the concept of Vizact 2000?

Jacob: Another driving force was looking at where we are going in the Office group. The problem that Vizact helps to solve is part of the larger problems that we’re trying to help customers solve in the Office group: the challenges of helping users master the
“digital nervous system,”
so they can work with information more naturally to be more effective and productive. We also see active documents as putting us at the dawn of a new era in office productivity, one akin to where we were when simple text word-processed documents began to add fonts, sizes, typefaces and colors to make documents easier to read and understand. In the same way, the simple movement and timing of objects and information makes active documents even easier to read and understand.

PressPass: How are Active Documents similar to what we see on the Web?

Jacob: We took the best of the Web — its dynamism and the ability to interact with elements to get information — and made it something that the average user can bring to his or her documents. The first thing is motion, the ability for elements to move around. We have a gallery of pre-canned motion paths, or you can record your own. The second thing is specifying the time at which an object appears or disappears. For example, if the main point of a document is that sales increased 38 percent last year, you can set up the document to show that heading first, to make sure that key message is the first thing the reader sees before the supporting text and graphics appear. The last attribute is interactivity, the ability to click on things and go to another page, or another part of the document, to let the information unfold for the user. This lets users create documents for readers with different levels of understanding.

PressPass: How are active documents different than what’s on the Web?

Jacob: For one thing, you don’t need to be a Web author or know HTML to use the power of the Internet to create active documents. And you can see some things you never saw before on the Web, in part because we allow you to add timing elements to your documents. You can create and share changes in the document’s fonts, colors and text with other users through the
in Vizact. You can also create transitions like those you’d see in PowerPoint presentations or television programs.

PressPass: What will Vizact allow business users to do that they couldn’t do before?

Jacob: In a lot of ways, business users have been limited by the static nature of documents. For example, they couldn’t create documents, such as follow-up emails, that would speak to different audiences in different ways at the same time. By that I mean an email might go to 15 people, and each of them might be interested in two of a dozen or more points in the email. Vizact allows each recipient to click on an Interactive Bullet and see only the details of interest to him or her. Business users can also, for the first time, apply these capabilities in the same way to all of their Office files, including documents, presentations and spreadsheets. Normally, you’d expect to buy an application and have these capabilities work only within that application. Now, you don’t have to worry about what application was used to create your document, as long as it supports HTML.

PressPass: What are other ways that people can take advantage of Vizact in documents?

Jacob: We expect to see people taking advantage of Vizact by sharing their Office 2000 documents across intranets and the Internet. It works really well in that environment. So, for example, they can take a spreadsheet, save it as an HTML table, and add
“Table Highlights”
in Vizact. This feature highlights the relevant rows or columns of a table, so it’s much easier to read.

PressPass: What are three of your favorite features in Vizact?

Jacob: Only three? Well, first are Interactive Bullets. This feature allows you to take large pieces of information and compress them down to bullets that the user can click on to see full information. Second are Table Highlights, which allows the user to see where data comes from and to focus reader attention. Third are Effects, such as simple movements and highlights that draw the reader’s attention to exactly where you want it. These effects were created by our interface experts and are ready for users to apply, without their having to learn anything complex.

PressPass: Can you give us another example of how Vizact 2000 might help people communicate more effectively in documents?

Jacob: Users can not only improve their current documents but also create entirely new documents that they couldn’t before. For example, everyone’s had problems with complicated and unintelligible how-to instructions that accompany many consumer purchases. With Vizact, you can create an active document instruction set that provides a visual demonstration of how to use a consumer product. For the manufacturer, creating and providing this active document could reduce the need for technical support and mean tremendous savings in expensive telephone support operations.

PressPass: Where else can you find technologies like those in Vizact?

Jacob: Some of the active document features in Vizact will remind you of the best of the Web, others will remind you of television commercials. Vizact takes effects that people have long wanted to use, but that were too difficult, blends them into one product and puts them at the fingertips of the average user.

PressPass: Does Vizact deliver anything that can’t be found elsewhere?

Jacob: Yes, for one thing, it delivers ease of use in the familiar Office interface. From a content standpoint, Vizact is unique in allowing the user to control the timing at which changes in the document appear, changes in text, fonts, colors and so on. The level of control over how things move in the document and how the document is choreographed is unprecedented. So is the ability to lead the user through the document, to use all the power of the Web to communicate.

PressPass: How does Vizact complement Office documents or any HTML document?

Jacob: Users can reuse their existing HTML documents to create active documents — so they can completely leverage their investment in existing documents. And when they combine Vizact with the power of Office 2000 — the best suite for creating and sharing HTML documents — they get even more. They can send documents directly from Word 2000 to Vizact, by just choosing
“Send to Vizact”
in the Word 2000 File menu. Vizact 2000 supports the same Web Folders the rest of Office 2000 uses; so sharing documents on your intranet is a snap. Office 2000 creates the infrastructure for easy document sharing, and Vizact builds on that so users can share more powerful, active documents.

PressPass: Will we see Vizact features wrapped into other Microsoft products in the future?

Jacob: We have no plans at this time to incorporate these features into other products. We created Vizact to respond to specific customer requests for a product that would work across the entire Office product suite. At the same time, customers were pretty clear that they didn’t want complexity added to their existing Office applications, that they wanted this functionality in a separate product that they could access whenever they wished. That’s why we created Vizact in the way that we did.

PressPass: What impact will Vizact have on the everyday life of the business user?

Jacob: At Microsoft, we’re just scratching the surface of this new communication application. People have said that this is like the day the word processor first displayed different fonts. It’s a whole new application that allows users to communicate at a new level. Where people may have been at a loss for words before, now they have another means to express their concepts. We see this as the natural evolution of communication in business. We were limited to words and pictures as communication tools when we were limited to paper output. Now with the PC as an output mechanism, we can use movement, timing and interactivity as part of the way we communicate. The result will reduce information overload and improve communication. Over time, as there is more and more document sharing and collaboration, I think we’ll start to see all documents include active elements created in Vizact.

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