evolution at work

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines evolution as 'a process of change in a certain direction'. Software evolves, too. You can see some of the evolution of software when you compare one release of software to the next. The software that you see in the wild is the product of a series of evolutionary steps that are usually only seen in the lab. Let's pull back the curtain and explore some of those evolutionary steps in the lab.

One of our 'certain directions' for Office 2008 was to make it easier for our users to make great-looking documents. There are two facets of this decision: better tools for doing so, and easier access to the existing tools and the new tools. You'll see a lot of posts here in Mac Mojo that talk about the better tools. I want to talk about easier access to them. One of our major changes for Office 2008 is that we have made some significant user interface changes to meet the goal of easier access.

Those of you who are in mixed environments probably know that the Windows Office team has done a complete overhall of their user interface in Office 2007 for Windows. We have a great relationship with the Windows Office team. In Office 2008, as with all of our other releases, we closely followed their work so that we could leverage the appropriate pieces of it for our Mac users. One of their major goals for Office 12 was a laudable one: they wanted to improve the discoverability of features so that you could find the features that were already in there. A feature can be the coolest feature in the world, but its usefulness is degraded if no-one can find it. To solve this problem, they threw out everything in their existing UI and started from scratch. But even revolution has an evolutionary aspect to it, at least in software development. As they were doing early usability testing on what eventually evolved into the Ribbon, one of the most compelling results was that their users liked seeing graphical representations of actions because it helped them visualise what they were about to do.

We looked at their solution, and we were very interested in the user feedback about the graphical representation of actions. However, we decided that we couldn't simply throw out our interface right now. Our UI has evolved down a different path than that of the Windows Office UI, even before the Ribbon came about. One major difference is our Formatting Palette. For many users, it is both well-liked and well-understood. Losing that would have a huge impact to users who are already comfortable and productive with it.

Aside from the Formatting Palette, we had another reason that we couldn't throw out our interface wholesale. Mac users have strong expectations about their user interface. We're often told by our users that they definitely want us to look Mac-like. The Mac UI one of the strengths of the platform: once you learn how to do something in one application, you can be reasonably assured that this lesson will apply to other applications too. Mac users expect a menu bar at the top of their screen with an Apple menu, an app menu, then File and all the rest of them, finishing up with the Help menu. We could have just left the Apple and app menu in place, and ignored the rest of it. Not only is this a waste of screen real estate, it breaks the user's mental model. But the Ribbon does some great things, and we want to capitalise on their innovation while still ensuring that we keep a Mac-like experience.

We decided to evolve our UI for Office 2008, while keeping in mind the revolution found in the Ribbon. We came up with what we now call the Elements Gallery. It and the toolbars are embedded into the application window. The decision to not try to replicate the Ribbon made some other decisions quickly fall into place for us. One major decision that came about almost immediately was that, unlike the Ribbon in Windows Office, we would not try to put every feature into our Elements Gallery.

In our first design, we only included some of Word's Document Parts (headers, footers, cover letters, bibliographies, etc). Early usability testing showed that users really liked the idea, and asked whether it would be in the other applications as well. In response to this feedback, our design evolved into something which would be more broadly applicable across our suite. Since we didn't put all of our functionality in the Elements Gallery, users requested that we have a minimised mode so that they could hide it when they weren’t using it. Our design evolved again.

Throughout the evolution of our design, usability tests were essential to the changes. Last September, there was an interview in APC Magazine that happened in the middle of one of those usability tests. In that interview, APC quoted one of our product managers, who said:

We had what we thought was going to be this perfect UI solution, and the first time we put it in the labs, no-one understood it! It was so different they were completely confused! We just finished up another round of usability testing on the new UI yesterday, and the program manager said the difference is like night and day.

That's software evolution at work. In the previous test that she was talking about, we had missed the mark. In that usability test, none of our usability test participants could complete all of the tasks successfully. In my analysis of those results, I thought that we could fix all of the problems pretty easily. We quickly made some minor tweaks to our UI. My team went back into the usability lab, and presto! it worked! As that product manager said, the difference was like night and day, and all because our design evolved a little bit. We were pleased to find that our basic idea was solid, we just needed to make a few small changes to improve it.

I've talked a lot about the Elements Gallery, but, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So let me show you an example of the Elements Gallery at work. I'm putting the final touches on a presentation in PowerPoint right now. Here’s the Elements Gallery showing me slide transitions:

PowerPoint 2008 Elements Gallery - slide transitions

Right now, we're putting the finishing touches on the Elements Gallery, as well as the rest of Office 2008. It's almost time to let our software out into the wild. You can see the Elements Gallery and other new Office 2008 features in action on our Office 2008 sneak peek website.

(Edited to fix the picture. Sorry, I linked to the wrong version of it! This is the 600-pixel wide version. Click on the picture to see the full 1000-pixel version. I didn't want to include the really wide one here so that I wouldn't make you scroll left-to-right in your web browser window.)