Designing Against a Degrading Experience

I'm sure many of you have experienced being the "one who knows about computers." In social and family situations this often means having to help to fix, clean up, or otherwise restore a computer experience which has fallen into disrepair.

There are a million reasons software experiences can degrade: unintended installation of add-ins or spyware and seldom-used programs eating up disk space and memory (or launching on Windows startup) are just two of the popular ones at which people like to point fingers.

Office is not immune to the perils of a user experience which degrades over time. But in Office's case, it's not usually a spyware or a performance issue: it's the UI.

One of the fun parts of my job is going on site visits, in which I have a chance to watch people use Office in their actual work environment. You learn so much about how people interact with software by seeing them use it, in their cubicle or office, along with the other artifacts of their work: calendars, sticky notes, staplers, physical inboxes, piles of forms, etc.

In site visits, I seldom see a real-world Word screen which looks anything like the beautiful marketing screenshots we create. You know the ones--the menu bar at the top with a single untouched toolbar below it and the rest of the screen clean and full of document.

What do we see more often in the real world? Toolbars everywhere--floating over the document, floating outside of the window, docked to the side, sometimes even docked above the menu bar. The menu bar itself tends to get dislodged through an unfortunate click or two and ends up docked to the left side or even floating. In short, the longer and harder people use Office, the more messed up their UI gets.

The reason? Current versions of Word or Excel or PowerPoint tend to reveal more and more of the UI as you go, and seldom does that UI get put away. So, because someone used a picture once, the Picture toolbar is floating, but everything is grayed out because there's no picture in the document. And the reviewing tools are up. And the Table toolbar. And Mail Merge. And Drawing. There are tiny icons everywhere.

But when we ask people why these toolbars are up, they don't know and the top question we get asked is "is there some way to close these without losing the features?" People are worried that they won't be able to find the tools they need again once they close a toolbar, so they just defer to keep it open, using up space (or covering their document) even though they hardly use the features in question.

As a result, one of our goals for the Office 2007 user interface is that Day 1 looks like Day 101.

We hope to walk into a site visit after someone's been using Office 2007 for a year and have it look as clean as it did in the screenshots on the back of the box.

How do we work towards that goal? The main enabler is one of the design tenets of the Ribbon: a single home for features.

Sure, the Ribbon might be a little bigger than a single toolbar, but everything's in there--it's like a flat tax. You give us a little bit more screen real-estate up front (about the same amount as two toolbars in Office 2000 or 2003) and that's all we'll take. Additional features reveal themselves within the Ribbon through Contextual Tabs, and they put themselves away when they couldn't possibly be used. (For example: You can't use the Table Tools if you don't have a table in your document anyway; everything would be disabled.)

Our hope is that we've created a user interface which will stand the test of usage over time--one which doesn't get more complicated just because you're using it.

One which doesn't require you to clean up after the software.