Sunday, May 28, 2006

Office 2007 Usability

Office 2007 Usability

Office 12/2007, a usability revolution

I have now had the chance to use Office 2007, and I have created a number of documents with it and analyzed how much more efficient the new interface is. The verdict? It is a revolution in terms of efficient usability.

A number of people have already written about this new interface, but it is one thing to look at a couple of screenshots, another is to actually use it in a work situation.

It looks strange, but it quickly feels like home

The new toolbars is very effectively making you feel like a beginner, suddenly you cannot find the simplest thing – like how do you open a new document. The common “open” icon is completely missing. You also need to learn how different things is grouped together.

But, after a few minutes of being lost, you start to get hang of it. You start to feel comfortable, and even more interesting, you start to feel in control. With the old Office (and other office products on the market), you are never in control of your work. If you do something special, you feel like you in a battle of menus and settings.

Take making numbered list: If you want to, say, make a numbered list with roman numerals it would a long time in the old office, if you can ever figure out how to do it. But with the new office you simply select that as you list style.

The difference in usability is staggering. Using FITTs GOMS and HICKs we can calculate just how much of an improvement it is.

Example: “selecting the items you want, and turn into a numbered list – with roman numerals”.

  • Old Office: 15.04 seconds
  • Office 2007: 8.65 seconds

(42% improvement in efficiency)

So not only is the new interface much more efficient, it is also empowers you to do new things. To take advantage of the many features of Office.

On-demand text formatting

A really exciting element is the “MiniBar”, a on-demand text formatting menu, that pops-up when you select some of the text. It special because it can really boost your productivity. Take a simple thing like making bold text.

With previous versions you had two ways of making text bold. You could either use a keyboard shortcut, which involves switching from your hand to your mouse), or you use the bold icon in the tool bar. That would take (after selecting the text):

  • Keyboard shortcut: 2.5 seconds
  • Icon in toolbar: 4.02 seconds

Using the MiniBar this operation is 20% faster:

  • MiniBar: 2.0 seconds

I admit that half a second isn’t much, but if every UI operation is 20-40% faster you can finish you daily tasks with 2 hours and 42 minutes to spare. That is like, taking every Friday off, and still get the job done.

Note: A number of people have compared the MiniBar to SmartTags. But the two are alike. SmartTags utilized the contextual menu (where you had to open it to see it), whereas the MiniBar is an active element.

Interface calmness

Another surprising thing about the Office 2007, and specifically the toolbars is that they give a sense of calmness. The old interface was a visual mess. Every single element was in a constant battle for screen space.

The new interface seems much more uncluttered. The dark interface (of Vista/Office) calms your eyes – even though it does a little to get used to. The new Calibri font (default font face in Vista/Office 2007) is very readable.

Some usability problems too

Not everything is brilliant and fantastic. There still is a number of usability problems.

First of all there is a poor “out-of-the-box” experience for existing users. The problems is that the change is so drastic that you feel lost. I admit that the feeling is quickly replaced by the feeling of being in power, but the first 30 minutes of use is not a good experience. We all know how resistant people is to changes.

Read also: Habits and Expectations can Render Usability Tests Invalid

Another problem is lack of space for toolbar elements. Take style bar. I sure looks nice, but you cannot read the style descriptions (an so far I have found no way of expanding the text).

Then there is rather peculiar problem. Since Office 2007 features “Live Preview”, you often find yourself spending time waiting for the preview to render, before you click the button. “Live Preview” is great for when you don’t know what you want. But it gets in your way when you do know – even though there is nothing stopping you from just clicking the button in the first place. I expect that the problem goes away ones you have grown more accustomed to the program.

You also got a problem of “modes”. Every usability practitioner knows that forcing people to work in modes is not a good thing. But, that is exactly what the new toolbars do. You switch between groups of toolbars to do your work.

It is not problem if you are simply writing an document, then you only need the “Home” toolbar group. But, if you are reviewing a document, you constantly have to switch between the “Home” and “Review” to get your job done.

BTW: Why have a toolbar called “Home”, give it a useful label as “Formatting” instead

Publish your work

One really exciting things about Office 2007 is the publish feature. You can now publish your work directly to your blog – and use Word as WYSIWYG editor. This is a great thing. I always write my articles and reports in Word because using a