Friday, January 19, 2007

Office 2007 Part 1 - Interface

I got a copy of the new Microsoft Office suite. Office is the one product in Microsoft's catalog that stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Office on the PC is hands down better than anything else out there. Office on the Mac is even better than on the PC and is in a much less crowded market. I used to think that Office 2004 for the Mac is still far and away better than the version of Office for the PC in terms of usability.

That is, until today.

Today I got a copy of Office 2007 to install on my work computer. I haven't had a chance to put it fully through its paces yet which is why this is a "part 1" entry. In terms of the interface, Office 2007 will blow you away. The "ribbon" sets up a dynamic interface based on what menu you have selected and shows all of the options with many of the unique settings for each option displayed neatly across the top of the page. The ribbon replaces all of the menus from the previous versions of Office. All file manipulation tasks are accessed through a button in the top left similar to the apple menu in MacOS (all versions if memory serves).

The ribbon is a dynamic tool bar which resides under the main menu bar. The names of the main menu options have changed a little with "home" replacing "file" (the file menu is in the upper right corner with the Office logo). The ribbon is then ordered from left to right in a common workflow order to assist users in completing common tasks. This is apparent especially in the "Mailings" tool bar. You can use the buttons from left to right to create mass mailings, and envelopes or address stickers. The menu bar above the ribbon highlights which ribbon you are currently working with. The ribbon is broken down further into themed regions (e.g. Font, Paragraph, etc.) Hovering over each tool gives a definition of what the tool is and the keyboard shortcut.

Then we add to that some great improvements to the context menus. For those who don't know, most software provides for context menus which provide common options in a quick distilled format. These menus are accessed by clicking the right mouse button in Windows and clicking while holding down the control button on the Mac. Office 2007 provides formatting options as well as spell checking options within the context menu. This improvement eliminates the need to move the mouse back to the top of the screen to make a formatting change to an item near the bottom of the screen.

In short, this new interface is amazing. It is a very well thought out design from a company that has put quantity of features available ahead of usability of the interface. The new design also better matches professional applications like Dreamweaver, and Flash which makes it all the more familiar to professionals like me. While the interface is a marked improvement, it is the drastic nature of the change to the interface that could be Office 2007's biggest detriment in providing Microsoft with a return on its investment. Office 2007 has a wonderful interface, but there is no "classic mode" option to allow users to switch back to what they are familiar with.

I teach a basic computers class at the school I work my full time job for. In the three years I've taught the course, I have had an assignment that has shed a great deal of light into the average computer user's attitude about software interfaces. In this assignment, I ask students to download Firefox and spend a week running that instead of Internet Explorer. I then ask the students to write up their impressions. I do this in the first week of my online course to be as much an assignment to verify that the student has Office installed on their computer as it is an assignment about web browsers.

It never fails that every time I teach this class, I get the majority of students responding that they wouldn't switch to Firefox. This is hardly surprising as all of us like to stick with the familiar. What surprises me is the reason for not switching. The overwhelming majority of my students state that the two interfaces are too different. I've studied interface design a little and Internet Explorer and Firefox have nearly identical interfaces.

If people won't switch to Firefox because it looks too different from Internet Explorer, Microsoft faces a severe uphill battle getting people to switch from Office 2003 to Office 2007. People will switch eventually, mostly because with Microsoft's products you end up having to but in the short term, I would look to see sales of Office 2007 to be somewhat sluggish despite the marked improvement in the software itself.

Sluggish Office 2007 sales would be a serious problem for Microsoft. Their two flagship products are supposed to ship this year. Office 2007 is one, and Windows Vista is the other. Both have major changes to the interface. Compounding things for Vista is that it is shipping with a lot of promised features missing and also some steep hardware requirements forcing many users to need to upgrade hardware first. Microsoft has not released a major version of either Windows or Office since 2002 and 2003 respectively. Questions concerning Microsoft's ability to remain an industry leader will be spoken more widely if these two product launches are not immediate successes. In the end, this hurts Microsoft's all important stock evaluation.

All in all, Office 2007's interface is a marked improvement from 2003 and while it may take some users a while to get used to it, I would strongly urge them to expend the effort to learn.

We'll talk about the data integration piece in a later episode.

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