Friday, February 18, 2011

User interfaces and the Office 2010 problem

Microsoft has some excellent user interface guidelines. The committee that wrote these guidelines made many of them unnecessarily complex and verbose, and I disagree with quite a few of them because I feel programmers will abuse them to do things that shouldn't be done in user interfaces, but by and large, I believe that if you keep these guidelines in mind, you will have a better product.

How, then, do we explain the mess that is Microsoft Office 2010? I can't. Take the mess that is Outlook, for example. Okay, so you want to add an email account. What's the first thing that Outlook tells you to do? Err.... EXIT OUTLOOK! And that makes sense because... err... why?

Yes, I know someone's going to pipe in with technical reasons for why Microsoft does this. But my point is, the user doesn't care. If Microsoft wants to keep a separate database with email accounts so that any email client they support (Outlook, Windows Live, or any future client) can access it, fine and dandy. But don't require people to run another program just to set up their email accounts when they're already in their email program.

Then there is the horrifically slow speed of Outlook 2010. I'm running Office 2010 on a 3.07ghz quad-core Intel Core I7 Extreme 950, which is not a slow processor -- indeed, it's one of the fastest consumer processors on the market. My Windows Experience indexes are near the top for everything except disk i/o, where it's constrained by the mediocre limits of a 7200 rpm SATA drive. I also have 12 gigabytes of RAM. But Outlook 2010 is always lagging. I have my Macbook Core I7, a dual-processor Core I7 at 2.6ghz, also. It has a 5400 rpm SATA drive. The Macbook is running Apple's Mail with the exact same accounts set up as the Windows machine. I hit the "sync" button on Outlook. I hit the "sync" button on Mail. And the winner is... the slower computer. By a landslide. Yes, Apple Mail on a MacBook blows Outlook 2010 out of the water in terms of responsiveness, displaying the count of new messages one by one in its left-side inbox tray long before Outlook 2010 finishes its clumsy sync cycle and starts deciding to display the counts.

Here's a clue: responsiveness does *not* necessarily require faster algorithms. Mail isn't doing anything extra-special compared to Outlook. Mail simply does more in parallel and returns results to the user as they come in, rather than batching them up. Responsiveness matters. Caching values so that you don't have to fetch them every time from the server, displaying results as they come in, and otherwise making it look fast is, in many cases, as good as being fast. I'm not privy to the innards of Outlook, but it appears to me that Outlook performs its sync cycle, tediously gathering new emails from each server, and then -- and only then -- decides to update counts and headers in the email window. I may be wrong about that, but I shouldn't even be guessing in the first place, because, like with Apple Mail, it should just happen.

And finally, let's look at Word 2010. Please. Word 2010 goes full-ribbon. Microsoft's new "ribbon interface" concept is a tabbed icon tray. It suffers from the same problem as Apple's Dock -- icons simply are not descriptive. They're so much hieroglyphics to me. Thing is, Apple's Dock is just one row of icons, and even that is confusing enough that I sometimes hit Preferences when I was aiming for System Performance. Word 2010, on the other hand, is tabbed row after tabbed row of icons. The end result is that it's utterly unusable to me because I can't find anything, any functionality I want is hidden in row after row of hieroglyphics. I instead go into OpenOffice and create my documents there. Way to drive people to your competition, Microsoft!

There's two points here:

  1. Icons do *not* replace text. Don't even think about it. Icons are a *supplement* to text.
  2. Microsoft doesn't follow their own user interface guidelines, adding gratuitous complexity for the sake of complexity, hiding functionality in row after row of "ribbon" icons to the point of rendering their product basically unusable to anybody who doesn't live in it. Look at page 19 of their user interface document (linked to above). Look at Office 2010. Sigh and think of what could have been, if Microsoft had only followed their own guidelines.
Note that Windows 7 itself, while not an outstanding user interface, is understandable and usable. I might laugh at how you must use the search box to find anything in the Control Panel because there's so many of the freakin' things, but there is a logic to it that is easy to understand. Office 2010, on the other hand, has a logic to it... but one that reminds me of the story I presented here a few months back, about the physicist who made a logical interface for our product -- but an interface that only made sense if you were a physicist. Or as he exclaimed when we told him that our users wouldn't understand his UI, "then your users are idiots!" Why... yes! And they're idiots with *money*, who want to get a job done, and who are willing to *pay* us if we give them something that they can use to get the job done that doesn't require them to be nuclear physicists to use it!

Sadly, Microsoft's been stuck in their own hermetic world for so long with no strong leadership from the top to force all the various divisions to comply with things like, say, user interface standards, that there is just no consistency to their product line. Even Windows 7, probably the best Microsoft user interface since Windows 95 introduced their "new" user interface to the world, suffers from this syndrome a bit -- the various vintages of programs in their control panel, for example, have user interfaces that are all over the place. It's a shame, really, because Microsoft has the technology to do it right, and even the people like those who participated in writing their user interface design document. Just not the leadership.

I guess Microsoft chairman Uncle Fester figures that as long as the majority of people need to use his workstation OS because it's the standard, he really just needs to sit back and rake in the money with occasional gratuitously incompatible upgrades to force people to buy replacements for their old stuff. And he may be right. But unless your company is Microsoft, it behooves you to do as Microsoft says -- not as they do. Because your competition is going to come out with a clean, simple, easy to understand user interface for their product... and if your product looks like a mess, if it exposes technical details that customers don't want to know about rather than Just Working, well.


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