Learning the Office 12 UI

I have seen a few posts over on channel9 and a other lists discussing the difficulty of learning a new UI paradigm.  I have had Office 12 installed for about 2 weeks now so I thought I would post my experience of starting to use it.


I don't work in Office product development.  I am a consultant and I work with customers helping them develop Office/IW-based solutions.  I knew the Ribbon was coming in this release but despite that the first time I fired up Word 12 there was a 'what the….?' moment, closely followed by the thought 'OK…so now what do I do?'.  So what did I do?  I started typing a document.  Some comfort…that still works the same.  I want to add some formatting.  The same old toolbar buttons are still right there in front of me :)  Next I decide to insert a table.  Before I would use the Table menu.  That's not there anymore, but there is an Insert tab on the Ribbon.  I try that and sure enough Table is one of the commands.  Very quickly I am starting to feel comfortable.  So now I start poking around in the Ribbon to see what else is there.  I find new interesting commands.  Is that new in this version?  I switch back to Office 2003 and look in the help.  The features I am looking at were there all along, just hidden deep inside the menus or on a toolbar I never use.


All in all I spend about an hour playing around with Word and I am feeling comfortable with the UI model.  I am still not quite as quick as I am with Word 2003 because I don't yet intuitively know where some of the specific commands I am looking for are.  But I am comforted that all the shortcut keys I know still work, and that I am learning new features and new ways of working that I didn't know existed before.  I think that with very little practice I will feel more in control and more productive than I ever did before.


Now I have to admit I am not the average Office user, and others may take longer to get comfortable than me, but I think that the learning curve isn't as bad as some think, and that it won't be long before users start demanding changes in the remaining Office apps.  But the question still remains why change at all?  Why break from a familiar UI and risk upset or frustrated users?


One of the problems with the old interface is that it was designed in a different era, back in the 80's when most people were unfamiliar with interacting with computers.  The goal then was to create a common UI model that all Windows apps could follow so that the user could immediately feel at home.  That model has served us well for many years, but is not without its problems.  The model was conceived when applications were much simpler than today.  Word 2.0 for instance had around 100 commands; Word to 2003 has around 1500!  I just looked at Word and counted 21 toolbars available for me to use.  I don't know what is in most of them.  I only use about 5 of the toolbars  - and that's coming from someone who consults on this topic.  How must ordinary users feel?


Meanwhile users' capabilities have moved on.  People today are familiar with working with a variety of different UI models - models that are tailored for the application and device in question.  Think of the mobile phone, MP3 player, PVR, Blackberry and PDA.  And then of course there's the Web.  A place where every site has its own UI and navigation tailored to its goals.  Think of Ebay, Amazon, Google...  Yes there are still best practices in good web UI design, but nothing like the constraints of the File, Edit, View menu model.


So here we are with a new UI concept for Office.  One final thing I should say is that it's difficult to get a feel for how good (or bad?!) this is until you actually have a go yourself.  I can see how a static screenshot would appear confusing.  Go take a look at the PDC webcasts to get a better feel for how the UI works.  If you are at PDC right now go and have a play in the Hands-on-Labs, then come back here, add a comment and let me know what you think.


Tags: PDC, PDC05, Office12