Q&A: Microsoft Showcases New User Interface for Office “12” Core Applications

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 13, 2005 — Thousands of software developers at the sold-out Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2005 today got a preview of a new, redesigned user interface (UI) that will debut in several core applications of the next version of Microsoft Office, code-named Office “12.”

While the Office applications have increased tremendously in power and added functionality in response to customer needs, the core UI has remained substantially unchanged for nearly 20 years. The command bar in Microsoft Office Word 2003, for example, looks much the same as the command bar in Word 2.0 did in 1998. In fact, the new UI is the biggest, most visible change to the way the core Office applications work since the introduction of the toolbar in 1997.

To learn more about the new UI, how it will make it easier for information workers to do great work, and why Microsoft decided to implement the transformation, PressPass spoke with Julie Larson-Green, group program manager for the Office User Experience at Microsoft.

PressPass: Why did Microsoft decide a new Office UI was needed?

Larson-Green: According to our research, people generally are very satisfied with the current version of Office, and the consistency of the UI over the years has been a big part of that. When computers were new, and people were just learning how to use them, it was very helpful to have Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint look very similar to each other. But over time, as we’ve added more and more features, it’s gotten harder for users to find the things they want to do with the product. Word 1.0 only had about 100 commands, and you could go through the menus and see everything you could do. But Word 2003 has over 1,500 commands, many of which are harder to find. That’s one of the key issues the new UI addresses.

PressPass: What were the design goals of the new UI?

Office “12” Word screenshot.

Larson-Green: We had four major design goals. The number one design goal was to make it easier for people to find and use the product features needed to get the results they wanted. As such, we set about rethinking the UI from the user’s perspective, which is “results-oriented,” rather than from the developer’s perspective, which tends to be “feature-oriented” or “command-oriented” – thereby enabling people to focus on what they want to do rather than on how they do it. We put those results in “galleries,” so for instance, instead of having to learn how to make something shadowed, or what the aspect ratio is or the percent gray, you just say, “Oh, I like that one,” and you pick it, you click it and get it in your document. It’s more visual.

The second design principle was to streamline the UI to maximize the user’s workspace. That means having the UI generally be much less intrusive –without popping things up over the top of where you’re trying to work, without toolbars appearing because you inserted a picture, and without task panes coming up automatically. In addition to having the document be the most important thing on the screen, we wanted to make the user experience more predictable, with less guessing and auto features. In general, we wanted too make the UI more user-driven.

Office “12” PowerPoint Screenshot.

Another design principle was driven by the desire to make it easier for people to discover the capabilities that achieve a desired result. To accomplish this, we contextualized the new UI by taking all the things that were not about authoring documents and moving them out of the authoring space, and contextualizing all the things about authoring documents into tasks to create documents. In PowerPoint today, all the commands are available to you at all times at the same level. While there are advantages to that, when you have a couple of thousand commands, you have too many things on the screen at once, and the user experience is not really directed to what you’re trying to get done. By making it context-driven, only the more relevant features are visible, which also makes it easier for the user to understand what the product’s capabilities are.

A final design principle focused on designing for the full document life cycle. We’re starting to add more of these processes in Office that aren’t just about authoring documents, which are features supporting collaboration and work flow and document management processes for your corporation. Currently, there isn’t a good place in the UI to put that kind of functionality, so we are creating a place to put it.

PressPass: Can you give an overview of a few of the main new UI features?

Larson-Green: There are far too many features to describe in any detail, but here are a few of the key innovations. The main part of the user experience is code-named the “ribbon.” It’s the one place you go to find the commands that are all about authoring –creating the document, the presentation or the spreadsheet you’re working on. There’s no longer a stack of task panes and menus and toolbars to look through. There’s just one place to look for commands.

Office “12” Excel Screenshot.

Another feature is “galleries.” Galleries give you a visual representation of the kinds of formatting choices you can make in your document without needing to set a number of individual elements to achieve it. For example, if you want your margins to be wide or narrow or short or tall, you can go to a gallery for a visual image of what that would look like all at once instead of needing to changes several items in a dialog box. The galleries also offer “live previews” in many instances, so you can see exactly what the document is going to look like before you make the choice, which makes it easier to experiment. For example, with something simple like fonts, you can select the text in your document, go up to the font drop-down menu, and by just rolling down the menu you can see the font change happen simultaneously in the document before you’ve selected the font you want. It makes it easier to create a document that looks the way you want it to look. These live galleries are almost everywhere in the product – it’s a try-it-before-you-buy-it kind of thing that cuts out lots of steps.

A feature code-named “Super Tooltips” integrates Help topics into the product in a new way. One of the main problems that people have with Help topics today is that they don’t know the terms used to describe features. Super Tooltips are integrated Help tips that provide quick access to information about a command directly from the command’s location in the ribbon. The tooltip itself will usually give you enough information about what that feature does so that you can use it.

Another feature is the “Quick Launch Toolbar,” which allows you to customize the UI by adding as many commands as you like to a toolbar. It’s a place where the user can collect the specific set of commands they use frequently. There’s also a feature code-named “Floatie” which is a formatting tool that presents the most common text formatting features on a tool panel that “floats” over the selected text – improving formatting efficiency by eliminating mouse trips to the command area. So, for instance, if you’re in the picture tools and you notice that your heading needs to be bold, the Floatie means you don’t have to switch all the way to another tab just to make that change.

Office “12” Access Screenshot.

PressPass: With the redesigned UI and the new features, does Microsoft expect a steep learning curve for customers and partners?

Larson-Green: The user data that we’re getting on the new UI suggests that the learning curve is small, so we don’t anticipate a big initial drop off in productivity. That’s partly because we have put a lot of the common commands in the first tab on the ribbon, based on the data we’ve received from the Office Customer Experience Improvement Program. That customer data tells us what features are used most frequently and how often they’re used so that first tab is going to look very familiar to people. They’re going to know how to use it right out of the gate. Even better, the new UI also helps expose the additional rich functionality that people often want, but find difficult to locate.

We’re also going to provide lots of new kinds of training, such as giving IT people customizable training materials and screen shots of the UI ahead of time so they can create training materials inside their own companies. We’re doing user training and videos on how to use the product. We have a compatibility mode that allows people to continue using their old keyboard shortcuts. We’re making sure that old add-ins that you have in your company will move forward into the new UI and be put on an add-in tab, and that people who create add-ins can re-author them to go into the right place in the new UI even using new things like galleries. And third party software makers and corporations can customize the UI by adding new top-level tabs and new chunks inside tabs, or they can even start over and create their own tab structure.

PressPass: Can I upgrade to Office “12” but keep the old UI’s look and feel?

Larson-Green: No, we don’t have a “classic mode.” We surveyed customers to find out what would help people transition, and they told us they really wanted us to help them move forward, rather than doing any kind of classic mode. In addition to redesigning the UI, we’ve added a lot more functionality in Office “12.” Faced with the same challenge of making all this new functionality available in the old UI, we couldn’t keep the old command-oriented model and make it easier for users to find new features, so we decided to make a bolder move.

PressPass: Which applications will get the new UI?

Larson-Green: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and the authoring part of Outlook –your calendar, your mail notes and your contacts –not the shell of Outlook. It’s important to note that the new UI is not intended to be a general-purpose application model. It’s not a replacement for menus and toolbars for all applications. There’s nothing wrong with menus and toolbars. It’s just that our powerful authoring applications have lots of commands, so we needed a different model –a higher-level way of presenting commands.

PressPass: Having spent the last three years focused specifically on the new Office “12” UI, what are you excited about?

Larson-Green: That’s an interesting question and a bit difficult to answer because my team and I have been so close to the process. As you can imagine, I’m really pleased with the huge amount of research, innovation and creativity that went into the design of the new UI. That effort involved the hard work of countless people striving to create a better customer experience. But at the end of the day, I am most excited about the feedback we’ve seen from people that have helped test the new UI and tell us that the change is simple and intuitive and will make their work lives a little easier. I think our customers will be excited to find how quickly they will become familiar with the new UI and how immediately they will see great results.

Related Posts