I see via Slashdot that xBetas has posted some screenshots of the new Microsoft Office 12 beta release. And the first thing that comes to mind is "good grief, how fugly!".
(Updated 8-Oct-05 to clarify beta release status.)
The second thing that comes to mind is "what were they thinking?". Long established conventions, such as the application menu bar, have been subsumed and partially replaced. All sorts of new design elements have been introduced, with questionable usability benefits. But hey, it's not all bad. And looking at some of the pictures in detail, it seems that the Microsofties have been looking closely at Apple's interface design. Get a load of that "brushed metal" knockoff!
Here's some usability notes, based on the screenshots. If you're at all interested, open the linked images in a separate window so you can flick back and forth between the eye candy and my searing and insightful commentary.
- The new File Menu is the vestigal remains of the familiar old application toolbar (in the default configuration). It is huge and chunky, just like the XP Start menu. The entries (New, Open, Save, Save As, etc) are familiar. It is unclear why this remains, when virtually all the functions are available via the toolbar anyway (where everything else is). It is also unclear what the implication is for keyboard control.
- The new task-oriented toolbar is at first blush a nice idea, but seems poorly executed. For a start, it has been hoisted above the usual toolbar position and into the menubar itself, subsuming the old menu bar (and leaving only "File"). This is bound to be confusing to anyone used to virtually any other Windows application. It appears to be a "notebook" style of interface, whereby the mode/task is selected and remains selected/depressed, and changes the contents of the toolbar accordingly. Unfortunately there are no visual cues that the contents of the task selector, consisting of Write|Insert|Layout|References|Mailings|Review&Comment, actually belong together. The entries have no icon (recognition vs recall people!) and are spaced further apart than regular menu items. When one is selected, it becomes depressed (as I do when I look at it) and the visual cue makes it look like a notebook tab. But this is not graphically "joined" to the actual toolbar below, which it affects. Since it appears in the traditional place of the menu bar, but does not behave at all like one, this is bound to cause confusion. And to add to the confusion, some toobar buttons in the form of icons, appear between the vestigal File menu and the task toolbar. The distinction between "select menu", "perform action" and "choose modal task" is completely unclear. It's not really a notebook, but it sorta looks like one, but it doesn't really work like one...
- Looking at the toolbar itself (in the same image as above, if you are still following along), we see a complete redesign of the toolbar. It seems each new release of Word has added more and more functions, and crammed more and more buttons into the toolbar. The visual clutter, and non-obvious icons have resulted in an interface explosion. (I have seen people with Word open and 5 stacked toolbars, giving single-click access to hundreds of functions - only a handful of which are relevant or useful at any given point.) In this new release, they have taken a very different approach to try to tame the toolbar monster. And first appearances seem to indicate it too is fugly. But apart from the aesthetics, it is also potentially confusing. Functionality has been split up into small functionally-related groups, such as "Font", "Paragraph" and so on. These groups, or bins, have a title in a darkly shaded area, above the buttons with a lightly shaded background. Visual cues would seem to indicate that these groups can be expanded (with a "+" sign in the corner). But one must seriously question the value of having a group called "Clipboard" consisting solely of a button labelled "Clipboard", or a group called "Proofing" that contains a button called "Proofing Tools". Given the down-arrow cue, it appears these buttons invoke a drop-down menu. Perhaps the missing application menubar from above has been stuck down here in the toolbar? There is yet another inconsistency in that buttons are sometimes drawn raised with a full border (the traditional button look with the "you can press me" affordance), while others have no border but feature the down-arrow - except for the Clipboard button, which is big and has a thick border, and a down-arrow icon that probably doesn't reveal a drop-down menu. The only way to discover what these do appears to be either to hover the mouse over the controls or just press them.
- I like the form-style editing of document metadata shown above, featuring custom user-defined fields. The property sheet appears at the top of the document display, with a white background and clean simple layout.
- The page count and word count are clear and prominent at the bottom of the window in the toolbar, a nice touch (since these two factors are very important to professional writers).
- The Insert toolbar gives us more clues as to what has happened to the poor lost menubar. It features many borderless buttons with a down-arrow, suggesting the drop-down menus are here. Some "menu buttons" feature a large icon with text below, and some feature a small icon with text to the right. Presumably this conveys a distinction between major and minor features, but why "Word Art" is major and "Insert Object" (which would presumably encompass inserting a Word Art object) is minor is not at all clear.
- The signature feature is cute. However the whole concept of applying DRM to your documents scares the pants off me. It will sure make corporate coverups easier (remember Enron?) if you are actively prevented from copying or even printing a document. But is it really up to the software to control us? Do we not even trust our employees any more?
- What on earth is the purple "Picture Tools" box doing stuck on the end of the task button menu bar thing? It looks a bit like a toolbar group, but is up in the task section. It's a different colour to anything else, but repeats "Picture Tools" above and below. Another mystery. I guess it's a context-sensitive addition to the task toolbar.
- In yet another glaring inconsistency, the Document Inspector is fundamentally flawed. Down the left side we see a list of results from the inspection process, and on the right side are a bunch of actions. But the actions are not represented as buttons, as 30 years of interaction design would have us believe. No, today the web is so hot that they have taken the long-established visual clue for a hyperlink (blue text with an underline that takes us to a different document) and decided it would make sense to have an action look the same. Is it an action or a hyperlink? Will it perform something immediately and leave me in this context, or take me somewhere else to view more information? Tough call. This is the subject of a long usability rant I'm working on called "The Web is not The World". Stay tuned.
- If you really want to, you can embed a few hundred meg of Word into your own app. Yay.
- Thank goodness we have common dialogs for system-wide tasks like loading and saving files. That way all applications have a consistent way for the user to manage their important documents, navigate around their computer and organise folders. Well, except Microsoft applications - and a few others. Like this SaveAs dialog, which is nothing like the common system dialog. In the task of saving a document, you are concerned with two things: what is it called and where is it going to be saved. But this SaveAs dialog shows files grouped by type, with some shortcuts down the side, giving the vast majority of the screen real-estate over to displaying other files. I don't see how this helps with the user task, aside from avoiding conflicting names.
- But that's not all folks - there's yet another SaveAs dialog, even uglier than the first (which actually isn't so bad aesthetically). It seems like it could be a Longhorn-esque style dialog, but I'm not ceratin. But for some reason the metadata down the bottom breaks with the tradition of low-contrast backgrounds and slaps us in the face with dark blue shaded backgrounds. They stil fall into the trap of providing a mini-Explorer interface, showing other files to the exclusion of providing for the task of selecting where this file should be saved. Presumably the mismatched labels in the metadata are a simple oversight: "Will be saved in: MS Word Document" and "File Type: C:\Users\Pat\Documents". Oops.
- Yet more Fun with Toolbars shows another task group hoisted up to the menubar, this time an orange box for Table Tools. The position and visual cues would tend to indicate that Table QuickFormats and Layout are hierarchically siblings of the Write, Insert and other common tasks, but that they are related by a higher level group of Table Tools.
- The image above shows better than most others just how radically different the new Office is from the rest of XP (compare with the Explorer window just behind). The colour scheme is completely different for a start, and Office does not appear to conform to the system theme. The entire application window, in its grey shading, looks nothing like the standard XP window. The menu bar is forsaken for clusters of drop-down buttons in toolbar groups. The toolbar and toolbar buttons have a completely different look and feel.
- After all these years, the paradigm of providing all the character and formatting functionality right up front, instead of encouraging the appropriate use of styles, is still present. Of the millions of people who use Word daily, I estimate about 27 people actually understand how to properly and effectively use styles. Instead, most people just swipe-select some text and select a different font, creating inconsistent documents and a maintenance nightmare should you ever decide you want to change all headings later on. But perhaps I will save the rest of that particular rant for another day...
- Then there's Outlook, which has received a similar level of Michael Jackson-esque plastic surgery. I am still struggling to look past the toolbar group New, featuring the toolbar button New. How would we have found it otherwise? Enough said.
Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, as Microsoft have clearly copied significant aspects of Apple's Aqua interface. The brushed metal look of the main window bar and menu bar, the blue candy style shading on the selected task button, the "lit from above" shading and highlight on the white toolbar buttons. But it ends up being not only a poor imitation, but a strange hodge-podge of ideas, lacking a global consistency and feel - especially when viewed alongside other XP applications.
This release of Office no doubt packs a great deal of functionality in. And perhaps there are even corporates who use half these features. But for a long time now Word has suffered from a chronic case of creeping feature-itis, trying to ensure we stay on the upgrade treadmill. This interface redesign is a symptom of the inherent complexity that highlights rather than simplifies it. The menu system has collapsed under its own weight, and it has devolved into a cornucopia of toolbars, groups and buttons, that appear in certain contexts. There are so many features and options, users are facing cognitive overload as they try to cram even more into their model of the system. We're going to need Google just to find our way around the Office menus, now that everything is hidden away.
But despite all the above, people will still use it in droves, simply because it's too hard for them to get off the treadmill. And Microsoft will continue to make a 72% profit margin on their Office suite.