Thursday, 7 August 2008

How did they design Office 2007?

I have just read a fascinating interview with one of the people responsible for designing the ribbon interface of Office 2007. (Thanks to Peter Bogaards of InfoDesign - Understanding by design for providing the link - Peter always recommends excellent material.) I know a large number of technical writers who are heavy-duty users of Microsoft Word, and the ribbon interface was one of the new features of Word 2007 that many technical writers of my acquaintance did not like at all when it was first launched. A common early reaction was something like: "just when we got used to where all the commands were in Word 2003, Microsoft went and changed everything again!" Opinions of Word 2007 have mellowed somewhat over the last year or so, as professional technical writers have got used to the new interface, and developed efficient ways of working with it.

The interview itself is by Dan Harrelson of Adaptive Path, and in it he speaks to Jensen Harris, Group Program Manager of Microsoft’s Office User Experience team. The first thing that is clear from what Jensen says is that the heavy-duty professional Word user was never a focus of the Microsoft Office development effort. In fact, Harris says, it was ordinary users who were central to their thinking: "...we wanted normal people to be able to make beautiful, stunning documents and presentations. We wanted the average user to have access to professional-level results with fewer steps than in the past." Harris goes on to extol the virtues of being able to "beautify" a picture in your document with "great-looking designs", which you can now do with Office 2007's graphics engine. This type of aesthetic question is not usually uppermost in the minds of most professional technical writers. We are more interested in mundane stuff, like consistent application of formatting styles, paragraph or heading numbering that doesn't have a mind of its own, pagination that stays put, indexing, cross-referencing, tables of contents, and so on. In fact, most professional writers are really most concerned with getting the content right - making sure that the words themselves are accurate, concise, appropriate, effective - so even the word processing features we are interested in are actually a distraction for us. That may be why some technical writers get so annoyed when Word does unexpected things.

The most fascinating feature of the interview is the description Harris getting developers to observe usability tests.

"When you want to convince a developer to help you make a change to the product, nothing is as compelling as bringing the developer into the lab and having them watch people fail. (Video also works well if you can’t bring the developer to the lab.)

Putting a human face on a failure really drives home why it’s important to improve usability, and helps everyone to visualize concretely whom we’re building the software for. Any developer worth her weight wants to do the right thing for her users, and so you usually just need to show them a test or two, and you’ll find that they are much more willing to help you. We bring developers and testers into our user research labs as frequently as possible."

This is good to know, for several reasons. It's good to know that Microsoft use usability testing, and takes note of user research findings. It's even better to know that in this team at least, developers were engaged with the testing process. Telling companies reluctant to undertake usability testing that "this is what Microsoft do" may have a positive effect.

But it's also clear that Microsoft did not have heavy-duty users in mind when it developed Office 2007, which is why, in its standard "out-of-the-box" implementation, Word 2007 is still not the best choice for large scale technical publications.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Holidays and spam

Last week I disconnected myself from the Internet, got in the car and headed north for a week's holiday in the English countryside. (We stayed at Wheeldon Trees Farm, near Buxton, which is in the Peak District National Park.)

Apart from the fine weather (we were lucky), the beautiful countryside, the excellent country pubs, and the interesting sites to visit, the holiday had another added bonus. There was no mobile reception for our network at least where we were staying. This meant I couldn't even check my email to see how the world was faring without me.

The world survived. When I returned to London I found my email mailboxes jammed with over 1,600 messages in just 7 days - and this number excludes most of the mailing lists I subscribe to. That looked like far more emails than I usually receive, and I was worried that I might have chosen a particularly busy week to go away.

On closer examination, I found that my spam filters had filtered out around 1,400 messages into easily deletable folders, leaving about 200 legitimate messages to look at. These messages included newsletters, circulars, and adverts - and some spam emails that had slipped through the filters - so the actual number of emails that were for me personally was just a couple of dozen. So despite first impressions, we had picked a quiet week for our holiday after all.

I know all the reasons for spam, and I know how to ignore the scams and phishing attempts. My email addresses are out there in the wild, and I can't stop them. On an individual level, I know my ISP and mail software have pretty good filters that save me plenty of time. What worries me is the danger that the sheer volume of electronic junk may one day overload the Internet completely.