Nine Much Needed Updates to Microsoft Office

Nine Much Needed Updates to Microsoft Office


Microsoft looks to Office 2013 as an “modernization” it is much more a throwback than an evolutionary step forward.  Although Office was just updated, 2013 breaks some things, fails to deliver in others and introduced new quirks as well — here is a list of updates that will make Office 2013 better without completely rewriting the code, and few thoughts about opportunities for a complete overhaul.

User Interface The Office 2013 user interface is flat, lifeless and hard to look at for long periods of time. Office limits colors to white, light grey and dark grey with a handful of distracting graphic flourishes that don’t had any value.

If anything a UI should make staring at the screen all day at least not unpleasant. By using all caps in the ribbon tabs and flattening out the ribbon at the same time, it become very difficult to differentiate functions— and my eyes hurt after a long day from the bland grey glow emanating from my display.

I know that Apple and Google are also going flat, not a trend I condone. It is time for software manufacturers to relinquish more of the UI to the consumer, and that means choices of look and feel, location and style of menus or even entire ways that features appear. Example: Instead of the bigger or smaller font buttons (separate on Office) consider a font size controller that manifest as a big A with a little a below it. As a finger moves up and down that controller the font size for the selected text changes. If we want people using computers to reengage with them and take more interest and more control, it is incumbent upon software manufacturers to let their users take more control of their experiences.

On another note, the Office user interface also demonstrates the continued inconsistency and broken conversations between product teams in Redmond. The ribbon originated with Office, but has been picked up by Windows 8 in its “desktop mode.” The all caps, used in Office, thankfully, aren’t present in Windows 8. Running a Windows 8 window next to an Office document creates the appearance of applications from two different vendors. That needs to be fixed with the Windows style driving UI across “desktop” apps.

Touch And then there is touch. Metro/Modern UI is a touch interface. There is nothing in Office that is touch, except the ability to move menus apart a bit (note to Microsoft marketing, “metro” was a much better name for the new UI). This approach to touch harkens back to the kludges the Office team offered with the first tablets as “pen” features were quickly added into Office XP (Office XP Pack for Tablet PC).

The ribbon has been controversial since its inception, as it fragmented the workflow of proficient users while arguably providing more access and visibility to features that lay hidden in previous versions of Office. The problem is it was an innovation targeted at feature exposure in a mouse world, not a touch world. There is nothing “touch friendly” about the ribbon. In fact, the new flat interface complicates its use on computers like Microsoft’s own Surface, where the target for fingers is even smaller and the edges of the buttons completely non-defined. Microsoft needs to invent an entirely new interface for the touch world. It hasn’t really been done yet, not by Apple, not by Google (QuickOffice).  The Parallels Access product offers a touch-like environment, and hints at possibilities for transitions, but it doesn’t reinvent the experience, it just makes it palatable to run Windows/OSX apps through an iPad. It’s time for an Office UI overhaul, and that means options, touch, mobility and other areas (see notes at the end) that just haven’t been addressed for years.

office clip artClip Art (Online Pictures) and Symbols  There is no better way to say this: Office 2013 breaks the clip art experience. While many of the dialog box features used to modify shadows or fills moved to the sidebar, clip art, or online pictures as they are now called, and the library like structure moved into a modal dialog box. That means when using clip art it does not persist once an image is chosen. If, for instance, you want to include multiple images of “dogs” on a PowerPoint slide, now you must initiate a new search each time, rather than selecting one image, browsing through the list, and selecting another. You can select multiple images from the open dialog, but that presupposes you know how many images you want. In the old method, the search results hung around so you could both scan and select after the initial search. Similar to Clip Art is the Symbol function that helps users find and insert typographic variations, including font images and special characters. Outside of the most recent items, this is a modal dialog box as well, vs. a library listing, and it should be reimagined as well.

Shapes This is a highly neglected part of the experience that hasn’t changed for years. It still looks like a Windows 3 feature. Microsoft needs to look at presentations and see what shaped people use and then figure out how to make some of those shapes within the product rather than force uses to use imported bitmaps searched, procured or created by the content creator. Arrows are a good example. The number of “shape” arrows is very limited, but arrows are one of the most used items in PowerPoint presentations. (Microsoft should look at Apple’s Keynote to find inspiration on better drawing tools…the hand sketched lines are brilliant and make very nice, easily drawn arrows.)

Smart Art Smart Art has never, well, been all that smart. The problem with Office 2013 is that it isn’t any smarter or dumber, it’s pretty much the same as it has been since its inception. This is a great feature for making lists less listy, but one that often adds time for sophisticated users because once they go beyond the smart creation of an item from a list, and attempt to move objects within the Smart Art, the smartness quickly abates and the objects lose their cohesion.

Start Screen, Options and Feature Clutter The start-up screen is a jarring and unnecessary edition to Office 2013, but it isn’t the only configuration issue, just the latest, and most noticeable one. Microsoft’s Office team needs to rethink options, not just for touch, but for simplicity and universality. The options within each application are numerous and unwieldy. Not only do they need to be redesigned, they need to be re-conceptualized as universal and application-centric. Grammer, spelling, office theme, editing, start-screens, etc. would be universal (at the PC settings level). They currently exist in a hodgepodge of general options, some of which are universal, and some of which are not. Any feature that isn’t needed should be able to disappear easily without going to “customize the Ribbon…” Options need to become contextual. If something doesn’t work the way a user wants it to work, the behavior should be able to be addressed at the point the behavior occurs. If a user want to make the mailings tab go away, right click (or tap and hold) and select “hide.”  Make it that easy.

Microsoft Centricity Office 2013 and Office 365 introduce the idea of “places,” which may be familiar to those who used SharePoint in enterprise settings. Microsoft, however, only deems Microsoft properties as acceptable places. If your “place” isn’t on SkyDrive, SharePoint or your PC, then it doesn’t exist. You can’t make Dropbox or Google Drive a default location for documents (you can, in fairness, pin a Dropbox or Google Drive director location in the Start Screen, but that is very different than choosing a default place.)

Faulty Memory One interesting new feature is book marking the last typing location and asking if you want to return to that when open the document. Cool. PowerPoint, however, spendsw a lot of its time tracking fonts used in a document to make them easily accessible during a session. PowerPoint then forgets about them completely when the document is re-launched. PowerPoint sets an expectation for user friendliness and then takes it away. This is not a new issue to 2013, but it is time to get it fixed. (Note, it would be great is Microsoft included a font list in information about a document).

New File Format This is very subtle— it has to do with the battle over standards that was fought with the release of Office 2007 and 2010, which resulted in the Office format becoming a standard that not even Microsoft complied with. So now they comply but that means these files are considered different, and older docs display a compatibility mode indicator, even though they appear to read and write across 2010 and 2013 without incident. File format issues have always plagued Office upgrades. Office 2013 creates and opens Strict Open XML files as defined by ISO standard 29600. Could I write a sentence that 99.99% of Office users would care less about? I doubt it. The problem is, people who don’t know anything about Office will see a warning for almost every old file they attempt to save that it will be written in the new file format, without really understanding that Office 2007 on will open the documents written by Office 2013 in native format, though a feature like web video, older versions of WordArt, diagrams and charts may not translate.

Thus Microsoft introduced multiple compatibility modes, which show up at the top of the document as “compatibility mode.” To find out (you’ll love this) which compatibility mode you are in, do the following:

  1. Click File.
  2. Click Info.
  3. In the Inspect Document section, click Check for Issues, and then click Check Compatibility.
  4. Click Select versions to show.

From Microsoft at Use Word 2013 to open documents created in earlier versions of Word.

A check mark appears next to the name of the mode that the document is in. (This is a dropdown menu, not an item in an information box — wouldn’t it make more sense for the version of the document and its “compatibility mode” to show up in “document properties” at the top of the file menu?)

For some historical analysis of the Office file format evolution, see Making sense of Office 2013’s file formats by Simon Jones at PCPro. The whole file format issue is really a battle around standards very much driven by government agencies in Europe and elsewhere focused on “open standards” for everything. If Microsoft didn’t end up as a standard, it would likely not end up on the approved procurement list in many countries. Simon will provide some perspective on the technical details.

A verdict on Office 2013

Beyond a few improvements like better grouping of functions on menus and bookmarking, there is little to recommend Office 2013 as an upgrade that would improve the ability of students or business people to create documents. And although Office 2013 did introduce a number of potentially annoying user interface glosses, none of them will prove insurmountable to experienced users who do decide to upgrade. But that doesn’t make them any less annoying.

For those using server-side services, Office 2013 is pretty much a necessity if you want a seamless server experience. Those who want to buy into the Microsoft Office experience, should consider Office 365, which also includes free Skype minutes along with a larger SkyDrive storage allocation. The problem is, the license at that point becomes an annual service fee that will need to be paid in perpetuity in order to ensure that continued use of the Office bits already installed on your computer. Licensing is an entirely different issue from the design issues here, but one that should be considered before making an upgrade choice.

A few thoughts for the future:

The Research Pane Years ago at an analyst briefing Microsoft hinted at a research pane that would analyze the current document, its context (such as its associated SharePoint site and other documents store in that site) in order to present related documents, people and events not explicitly linked to the document at hand — items inferred from the context. This hasn’t happened. In fact, research has been eliminated from Office 2013, not enhanced. Failing to make a feature useful should not lead to its elimination, but should result in an effort to actually make it fulfill its original design promise. Evernote Premium offers a related notes feature, why not Office?

Intelligent Help A fellow analyst just shared the following story. He couldn’t figure out how to do something in PowerPoint. He stood up on his desk and shouted his question out across the cubicle farm. An accurate response was shouted back. It wasn’t shouted by Office help but by an Office colleague. Microsoft “help” has never been good, but it could be great. Microsoft has access to practice information from thousands of companies that it could use to create contextual help— help that could be called via audio questions from users. A huge market exists for teaching people how to use Office. Microsoft takes that market for granted, and does very little to learn why so much needs to be taught about what it considers so simple. Intelligent help, perhaps even invoked actions, could be a cool feature for touch-based Office apps. Imagine saying: “make this documents two columns from this paragraph to the end of the document” or “alternate headers every other page,” followed by Word asking “What would you like in the first header (with a box you could fill out or dictate into). I know Clippy attempted intelligent help, but Clippy was as intelligent as Smart Art is smart (that may be on the SAT). Feature richness abounds in Office, it is time to simplify and unbind and decouple. Mobile apps don’t need everything, and neither do most desktop users. If Microsoft reinvented Office help for the 21st Century they could establish new thought leadership in the Office space while ensuring their legacy and their revenue stream.


Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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