Take Note on Word

Greetings from MacBU and Happy New Year!  As you probably know by now, Office 2008 RTM’ed last month and we’re thrilled to start off 2008 with our product launch at Macworld Expo San Francisco.  Next week, we’ll be awaiting everyone at our Macworld booth with demo stations, theatre presentations, and insider tips-and-tricks on Office 2008.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to provide in-depth postings on how we developed Office 2008.  Thus far, we’ve provided details on new suite-wide innovations and application-specific features in Office 2008.  However, developing new features is only part of our efforts --- we also invest in improving existing features based on customer feedback.  One example is Notebook Layout View, first introduced in Word 2004 and now further enhanced in Word 2008.  In this post, I will begin with a brief history of this feature and take you behind the scenes on how it was designed, developed, and further improved upon over the course of two releases of Word for Mac.

So first, what is Notebook Layout View?  Simply put, Notebook Layout View is a specialized workspace that resembles a spiral paper-based notebook, in which you can take notes, flag items, and record audio.  Below is a screenshot of the latest reincarnation of this feature in Word 2008.


For years Word has been used by our customers for a myriad of tasks, including note-taking.  Whether it is jotting down the occasional idea, keeping lecture notes, documenting meeting minutes, tracking action items, or simply keeping lists --- these all represent different variations of note-taking.   While many of our customers have used Word for note-taking, given the product’s origins as a word processor, the overall note-taking experience was not as optimal.  Basically, the traditional word processor metaphor did not lend well to the basic goals of note-taking: transcribe, organize, and follow-up.

In addition, some customers who hadn’t yet taken advantage of the convenience of electronic note-taking lamented over having scattered post-it notes or paper scribbles that were difficult to maintain, if not lost altogether.  Based on these findings, it became clear that we could offer improvements to Word 2004 to better serve these user needs --- hence what we referred to internally as “WordNotes” was born.

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When drawing up the initial prototypes, one of the most important design goals was that WordNotes resembled the most widely-used note-taking medium --- the paper-based notebook.   (Shown above is an early prototype of WordNotes in Word 2008).  Given the popularity of paper-based notebooks, adopting this metaphor ensured the feature was intuitive by virtue of being self-explanatory.  Any user familiar with the paper-based notebook should feel right at home with WordNotes. This meant WordNotes was to offer the following basic elements: Notebook Header, Rule Lines, and Notebook Tabs.

Sounds simple?  Well, not quite.  What sounded like a simple design goal presented a myriad of design challenges in light of the established user interfaces in age-old word processing applications like Word.   To make things more interesting, how do we add new functionality while remaining compatible with existing versions of Word?

After several weeks of evaluating the desired functionality in light of the underpinnings of Word, it turns out over the years we’ve already added most of the functionality needed to deliver WordNotes.  Prior to my role as the Word Program Manager Lead, I was the International Program Manager.  This past experience offered me insight into how a relatively unknown Word feature designed for our Japanese customers would come to form the structural basis of WordNotes: Document Grid (aka., Genko Yoshi).

The Japanese version of Word had long offered users to set the number of lines on a given page and their relative line spacing in between.  These lines weren’t just for cosmetic purposes, as their purpose was to ensure text laid out along the lines.  By leveraging this work, we were able to implement Notebook Rule Lines and ensure typed text stayed in sync with the lines. 

What about the Notebook Header and Notebook Tabs?  Again, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.   Word’s traditional “Headers and Footers” functionality formed the basis of WordNotes’ Notebook Header, but with important usability enhancements.  One of such enhancements was that WordNote users could freely enter and exit the Notebook Header with a single click, without realizing that under the hood they actually entered Word’s regular “Header and Footer” mode (which was a “semi-modal” state for those familiar with the concept of modality). For Notebook tabs, we mapped them to Word “Sections” and further allowed them to be re-ordered as users re-ordered their corresponding Notebook tabs.  Given that WordNotes functionality was carefully built on top of existing Word document properties, WordNotes was therefore compatible with existing versions of Word.

Thus far, these all represented the overall UI framework of WordNotes.  What about that actual method of transcribing text in WordNotes?  For this, we turned to User Research for guidance.   Based on studies done on note-taking patterns of both professionals and students, we saw a high correlation between note-taking and outlining.  In particular, note-taking is typically done in the following four styles:

These studies demonstrated that the first two styles accounted for nearly all types of note-taking.  By preserving the hierarchical structure of an outline or list at the time of note-taking, end results were more organized and actionable, as opposed to simply being “a mess of notes”.  Based on these studies, we adopted an outlining method that best covers the first two note-taking styles. 

Again, to ensure WordNotes was compatible with all other versions of Word, we built the outlining functionality on existing Word properties, namely "Word Styles" .  For those familiar with the inner-workings of Word, Styles are the backbone of the application.  Styles are present in every document and down to every typed character.  We created 9 new WordNotes-specific Styles --- each with unique paragraph, bullets, and level properties --- all of which could be viewed and edited in other Word Views.  

As noted earlier, one of main goals of note-taking is follow-up.   To this end, we provided a series of note flags and checkboxes that users can append to a given task or line item.  Items can be marked with High/Low Priority flags or checkboxes that can be checked off following their completion.  (Shown below)  Users can similarly mark an item as an Entourage Task by setting up a reminder that will appear on a user-specified date and time.

To further the goal of notes being actionable, we added advanced Search capabilities to WordNotes.  When typing in a keyword into the Search field on the Standard Toolbar, not only will the notebook tab of the corresponding section “light-up”, but the actual keyword in document will also be selected.  This is particularly useful when searching across lots of notes, whether it's a semester’s worth of lecture notes or long drawn out meeting minutes (not that I know of any such meetings...) 

Additionally, to help users more effectively capture notes in situations where one’s typing can’t keep up with the pace of say, a lecture or meeting, we’ve provided real-time Audio Recording.

Given that the audio is time-stamped at the time of text-entry, users can chose to listen to only a specific segment of the entire audio recording.  Students have found this to be a very useful feature --- some even export the audio recording onto their iPods to listen to.  A very creative way to use the product --- and in turn get good grades.J  (If only I had this feature when I was in school, it would have all turned out differently).

So that’s the development history of WordNotes, which was subsequently renamed “Notebook Layout View” prior to its official debut in Word 2004.

So, what did we improve in Word 2008?  Since the feature’s debut in Word 2004, we’ve received many feature requests, many of which we’ve been able to deliver in the new version.  Below are a few examples.  As noted earlier the ability to quickly organize notes is an important goal of note-taking.  Spiral paper-based notebooks often offer color tabs for organization.  In Word 2008, we’ve similarly added the ability to set the color of a notebook tab, which can be changed to another color later on.  Additionally, when consolidating notes between two Notebook Layout View documents, you can simply drag a notebook tab from one document to another document.  By adopting many of the newer API's made available in the OS, we've also improved the overall performance of the feature.

Furthermore, spiral paper-based notebooks often come in a wide variety of appearances that customers can choose from.  In Word 2008, we similarly provided 5 specially crafted Notebook Appearances, each with unique notebook paper and tab designs.

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In keeping with Mac tradition, we’ve paid special attention to the visual fidelity of each Notebook Layout View UI element --- whether it’s the new photo-illustrative Notebook Layout View icon, soft drop-shadows from notebook pages, translucent notebook tabs, or the metal sheen on notebook rings --- all were crafted and refined to deliver a polished yet elegant Mac-like experience.  Each notebook appearance can further be complemented with one of the special pasteboard backgrounds described in my earlier posts. Since notes are often no more than a single-page shopping list --- we’ve also covered this scenario with ring-less paper designs.  

So there you have it --- Notebook Layout View, reinvented.  Looking back, this feature has come a long way since the first moment that sparked the idea of “WordNotes”.  This goes as far back to Macworld Expo San Francisco of 2003.  Sitting amongst the crowds during the Keynote, I gazed upon the newly unveiled products, including the sleek aluminum alloy12” and 17” PowerBooks.  On stage, Steve Jobs heralded 2003 as the “Year of the Notebook”, where notebook computers represented the “next wave” that would eventually surpass desktop models in popularity.  What came to mind (other than “I want one!”) was “what could we do to make Word a better companion to these amazing notebook computers?”  Well, perhaps something that captured the essence of a “notebook” --- an information hub for our increasingly digital lifestyles.  After all, what good is a notebook if it doesn’t take good notes?

Fast-forward a couple years and my Notebook Layout View-equipped MacBook Pro has become indispensible.  I’ve since retired my old paper-based notebooks, my office is no longer scattered with post-it notes, and I’ve hopefully saved a few more trees.  As we’re riding this exciting wave of mobile computing, I hope you’ll also find Notebook Layout View to be your personal and dependable companion along the way.

Han-yi Shaw