Usability and Styles

According to Pierre, I'm too ossified to discuss this subject. On the other hand, when Pierre uses the word "usability," it's very much like the way Vizzini uses the word "inconceivable" in The Princess Bride, and I'm often moved to quote Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

The problem with Pierre's discussion of usability is that it's completely devoid of any discussion of user tasks. Pierre never talks about why a user would want to know what styles are applied to a given location in the document, and how the presentation of that information simplifies common user tasks. Had he done so, he would quickly realize that Pages' solution to some key user problems isn't as elegant as Pierre would have us believe. Indeed, there's one key problem where Pages offers no effective solution at all.

People use styles for two general reasons that are not incompatible with one another: to denote structure in the document, and to maintain a consistent look throughout the document. A common task associated with both goals is to review the document for consistent usage, and it's worth noting that the person doing the review is often not the same person who originally wrote the document.

Note that I've used the word "review," and I've done so for an important reason. A review might involve a scan of the document, but that's not always the case. Indeed, one of the more important questions users ask is, where are certain styles used within the document? Both Word and Pages have a rather quick way to answer that question via the "Select All" or "Select All Uses..." menu options on the individual style items in either the styles pane in Word or the styles drawer in Pages. Though, here, I would argue that Word's solution is better in two ways. First, in Word, you can filter the list of styles to only those styles in use. In Pages, you have to scan a list of styles looking for styles that are in use. Second, in Pages, you have to select the entire document. In Word you don't.

So, think about the work flow for reviewing the use of several styles in a document. In Word, you'd filter the styles list to styles that are in use, then choose "Select All" on the style item menu for each style you'd want to review. In Pages, you first have to select the entire document, then scan the styles drawer for the style you're interested in reviewing, and then choose "Select All Uses" from the style item in the drawer. To review the next style, in Word, you just choose the "Select All" item for the next style you want to review. In Pages, you have to reselect the entire document and then repeat the scan through the list of styles. In this case, Word's UI allows the user to complete the task in less time and with fewer steps.

Now, that covers how users would answer the question, "Where have I used this style?" There are times when the user will want to ask, "What styles are used here?" For character styles, Pages is marginally better than Word. Pierre is correct in noting that Word currently does not give the user a way to answer that question for any arbitrary sub-section of the document. On the other hand, in both Word and Pages, you still need to click around in the document in order to see what styles have been applied in particular locations, and it's not at all clear how seeing the styles used in an arbitrary selection simplifies the overall task of reviewing a document for style consistency.

Moreover, with Pages, the user is still saddled with having to scan a list of styles in order to see which ones are applied. And, as a side note, the two different style menus do not provide a particularly elegant solution either. The little "-" sign next to the style items is difficult for some users to even see, and the fact that the user has to drop two menus to find the relevant information adds yet another step to any user task in which the user seeks to answer the question, "What styles have I applied here?"

A far better solution would be to provide visual cues in the document itself showing what styles have been applied. For paragraph styles, Word has long had this feature in draft view. On the "Word" menu, select "Preferences" and then click on the "View" icon. In the "Window" section, you'll see a "Style area width" edit item.

But, that's not an ideal solution either. First, there's no information about character styles. Second, the user has to switch document views. For Word 2011, we've come up with a better solution. You'll likely see a post on Mac Mojo talking about the work we've done here, but it's a far better solution than those offered by either Pages 2009 or Word 2008. No selection required, no need to drop a menu or scan through a list of styles in the styles drawer. In order to see what styles have been applied, the user will merely need to scroll through the document.

Now, we've talked about two different questions that users often ask: "Where has this style been used?" and, "What styles are used here?" There's a third question that users ask, and it's often more important than the other two. That question is, "Where has direct formatting been used when a style should have been used?" The goal, here, is to correct these cases; to replace the direct formatting with the styles that should have been used in the first place.

Pages currently offers no real solution to this problem. At present, Word does have a solution, but it still requires the user to scan through the document and click where the formatting appears to be different from the underlying style. Though, to Word's credit, the "Current style of selected text" control in the styles pane gives the user a way to select all instances of that combination of style + direct formatting in the document, at which point the user can then simply apply the style that ought to have been applied in lieu of the direct formatting.

As with the "style area width" feature in Word, this is also not an ideal solution to the problem. We can do better. Indeed, perhaps there's a solution that allows the user to merely scroll through the document...

When it comes to usability, it's not enough to just "think different." You have to think about what users are trying to do and what tasks they need to perform in order to achieve those goals. Ultimately, if your "usability" does little to shorten the amount of time it takes for users to complete important tasks, then it really has nothing to do with "usability" at all.

Update: I couldn't talk about the work we've done when I first posted this, but here's a nice screen shot of Word 2011's Styles Guides:


The full article is here, and I'm particularly fond of Edward Mendelson's description of this feature:

The other terrific new feature is the Styles Guide display. When you turn this on, a color-coded column appears (on screen only) in the margin of your document. Each block of color has a number, and the colors and numbers match colors and numbers in the styles menu, so you can see at a glance which styles are attached to every paragraph. This is impossible in all other versions of Word, and all other word-processors. Another option, also available from the Styles menu, turns on a "direct formatting indicator" that outlines in blue all the text in the file that is formatted directly from a menu with (for example) italics or bold, instead of being formatted with a style. I only hope that Windows users will get this terrific feature before too long.

If you look closely at the left-hand document, near the bottom, you'll see a bluish "9" box to the right of the yellowish "7" block. That means there's a character style applied within that line.

Notice, also, that the "7" is drawn black while the "9" is drawn white. I'm proud to say that I came up with the algorithm for figuring the color for the number based on whether the human eye would perceive the background color as being "dark" or "light".

And, by the way, that entire Styles pane is done completely in Cocoa. So, it has some nice animation features when you change the "List:" menu to change the collection of styles that's shown in the list.

Was it John Gruber who said something about attention to detail when he linked to Pierre's original post?



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