I Am Your Density

A comment we've heard again and again about the Office 12 interface after people
use it or see it demoed live is: "wow, it's so much better than I imagined just by seeing
the screenshots."  Several people made that comment to me once again after my talk at PARC Tuesday night, and I wanted to write down some thoughts on the subject.

Fundamentally, there's a kind of UI that is built with great screenshots in
mind.  Generally including big, shiny buttons with copious whitespace on
all sides, these interfaces look extremely simple and easy-to-use in
"back-of-the-box" marketing screenshots.  The screenshot-optimized interface is
generally low-density, with only a few controls on the screen at once.

definitely thought about this in designing boxshots for marketing materials in
past releases of Office.  The
picture we show on the back of the box is what the product looks like the first
time you run it.  But one of the problems with the current Office user
interface is that it tends to degrade over time--toolbars pop up over your
document and never go away, things get accidentally moved, Task Panes pop up
automatically, etc.  When we do site visits, we often see Office screens
that look more like the picture below than the one on the back of the box.

Back of the box vs. Real world screenshots

This is not deceptive advertising in any way, it's just the reality that today's
system of menus and toolbars and Task Panes tends to present more and more
complexity over time.  It's true for today's Office, and it's equally true
with dozens of other full-featured software packages.

That's because to build efficient productivity software that wears well over
time, the interface needs to be relatively high-density.  Having only five
shiny buttons on
the screen is very simple-looking, but it means that using any functionality
beyond those buttons requires at least one extra mouse click.  (Probably

Based on just
a screenshot
, the Ribbon appears fairly involved.  This is because the
density of controls, especially on the first tab which tends to be shown in
screenshots, is fairly high.  Yet, when people use the new UI or see
in action--actually interacting with the software and not just staring at it--it
doesn't feel cluttered.  The first tab is high-density because it's
designed for high efficiency, and you wouldn't want most of those features an
extra click away.  Bold and Italic and Center have small, unlabeled icons
because they tend to be among the handful of features people can use without
text labels.

One of the design tenets we've embraced from the very beginning was that the Ribbon was going to be a
flat tax on screen real-estate.  Yes, it takes up a few more pixels vertically than
the two toolbars
from the back of the Office 2003 box, but it won't degrade over time.  We
won't pop up extra UI over top of the document, or from the side, to advertise
features.  Our goal is that when you boot Word 12 five years from now, it
looks as clean as it did the first day you brought it home.

We don't worry about the screenshots; we worry about getting the product right
for everyday use.  We worry about the long-term ramifications of our
current design decisions, not how they'll look on the back of the box.  And
if that means that some people don't react as positively as we'd like to static
screenshots, then we need to redouble our efforts to get people to watch, read
about, and use the UI in action.

A friendly, high-density productivity interface that demonstrates respect for
your screen real-estate is one that will wear well with time.