The Expert Mode Misadventure

It may seem based on my writing that the ideas behind the Office 12 user
interface kind of popped out of the sky and or that we went with the first things
that came to mind.

In reality, many people contribute creative ideas, and deciding which one is the
best is no easy task. We debate and discuss and weigh the details, and in the
end we have to make a decision.

Sometimes, especially in the early stages, we bet on the wrong idea.
Hopefully we catch many of them through the
testing of early prototypes,
but occasionally it's not until something is in the build and we use it for a while
do we realize that it's totally wrong. It's our job to find and fix those mistakes.

One of the mistakes in Beta 1 of Office 12 is something called "Expert Mode."
I haven't written about Expert Mode yet because I've known we were going to
change the design for some time and I wanted to wait until we had settled on the
replacement design so that I could relate the entire story. I know there are
those on the team cringing right now even seeing the words "Expert
Mode" on the screen...

Here's the background: there are many, many settings in Office. Organized
into rows and rows of tabs in Office 2003, Word alone has hundreds of options,
many of them obscure.

The result of having so many options is that most people never change any of them. They
open the dialog box, shudder in fear, and then close it. Yet, many top feature
requests are things already in Options. ("I want to change my default font.
I want to always save in this format. I want to change the name used to mark
comments." etc.)

These useful options, which I call "user preferences" were mixed up with
many, many advanced settings which made the preferences hard to find.

(How many of you regularly change "Suppress extra line spacing the way
WordPerfect 5.x does" or "Don't expand character spaces on a line that
ends with SHIFT-RETURN"?)

Our solution? A feature called "Expert Mode." When you opened up the new
Options screen, only the
useful, understandable options were present. The idea was that people would find and set their preferences and
never need to be exposed to the rough underbelly of the product. If you really
needed an advanced setting, you could find an obscure checkbox to turn on
"Expert Mode", at which point a bunch of extra settings would show up in place
and in green (to show you that they appeared.)

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. (Sounds like at least a
distant cousin of
Personalized Menus, doesn't

If you never, ever, ever needed anything except for the things we designated
as "preferences", the design worked great. You never saw Expert Mode, and
you'd have a very clean and easy-to-use Options experience.

On the other hand, if you need even one Expert Mode setting even once, your
user experience is destroyed. First, you have to find the checkbox to turn on
Expert Mode (and we didn't make it easy.) Second, as soon as you do, every
section of Options is filled up with extra settings. They show up in-place,
meaning that there's not even anywhere to go scan for the ones that newly showed
up. Third, no one is ever going to do the extra click to turn Expert Mode off
again--so either we "auto" turn it off, or the user is stuck with a confusing
mishmash of advanced settings mixed in with the more commonly changed settings

Despite its shortcomings, we thought the design would work and we put it into the product;
in fact, it's there in Beta 1. Unfortunately, we were wrong..

It soon became abundantly clear that we had made a mistake.

We couldn't get the classification of Expert Mode right; more people than we
thought needed one or two Expert Mode settings and nearly all of them
required assistance to get Expert Mode turned on. Once Expert Mode was activated, even if they only needed
to change something once, the experience degraded to
be not much better than Office 2003.

So, after Beta 1 we demoted Expert Mode to the design scrapheap. Instead, we
gathered together the most commonly sought-after user preferences and put them
on a simple, straightforward first page. Advanced settings which don't fit cleanly into a top-level
category are grouped together into an easily-scrolled Advanced section, with group
headers helping to organize the flow.

The advantages of this design: a clean layout and organization for user
preferences. An easily browsable, single list for more advanced application
settings. Looking for one of these doesn't degrade the Options experience and
doesn't require a checkbox to activate. And best, like the Ribbon, there's no
"auto" behavior--everything has a clear, browsable home that remains the same
session to session.

I'll write in detail about the new Options in a future post, complete with
screenshots. There are some pretty nifty improvements.