What You Get is What Microsoft Sees

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen heralds the next version of Microsoft Office for introducing “a new interaction paradigm called the results-oriented user interface.”

As the demos show, the most obvious departure from the past is that menus and toolbars are all but wiped out. The focus is now on letting users specify the results they want, rather than focusing on the primitive operations required to reach their goals.

The new interface displays galleries of possible end-states, each of which combine many formatting operations. From this gallery, you select the complete look of your target — say an org chart or an entire document — and watch it change shape as you mouse over the alternatives in the gallery. The interaction paradigm has been reversed; it’s now What You Get Is What You See, or WYGIWYS.

It’s as if you could point to a marble block and say, “I want it to be the David — or maybe Venus de Milo,” as you flip through a book of famous statues. Every time you mention a design, your marble block would morph accordingly, but with your content (say, the face or the size) in place of that original element.

Obviously I haven’t yet seen the prototype Microsoft Office. But it sounds suspiciously like the Office Assistant (from previous versions–you know, the talking paper clip) writ large. The Office Assistant is always appearing to offer worthless suggestions (no–I’m not trying to write a letter–go away). In other words, it’s an extension of the thinking that says, “We’re sure you’re so stupid that we’re going to tell you what it is you’re trying to do and do it for you.”

Nielsen’s the usability guru, so I’m fairly certain he’s right: this will make Office easier for beginning users. The problem is that no one does (or should) stay at the level of a beginning user. It’s like keeping a permanent drivers’ ed teacher in the front seat. If you use word processing software regularly, you have built up the skills necessary to accomplish what you typically need to do. With this “paradigm shift,” Microsoft renders that skill set obsolete and appeals to the minority of Office users who are completely inexperienced.

Worse, by discouraging users from learning the means to reach their own goals and instead providing a set of Microsoft-imagined goals, the new Microsoft Office probably will make it more difficult to achieve one’s custom goals. Nielsen’s sculpture analogy aptly shows the weakness of this paradigm. When you want the David or the Venus de Milo, it may be faster to pick it from a catalog. But what about when you need to create your own sculpture of something no one else has imagined? The new paradigm not only has robbed you of your trusty hammer and chisel; it also won’t let you near the block of stone to use any newer equipment.

As an aside, I have my doubts that the “Venus de Milo” of document goals will really be in the gallery. Anyone who’s used Microsoft Frontpage, with its garish templates, knows that sometimes what the Microsoft engineers imagine as your goal is a far cry from what anybody (including Microsoft itself) would ever use.

It’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic with the Office development team. After years of Office versions, it seems as though they have approached a limit of features widely used. So how can they convince someone to shell out hundreds of dollars for an upgrade of minor options? They can’t. Their remaining choice is to re-work the only area where there’s room for major changes: the user interface.

2 Comments

  1. Reading the extended quotation you cite, I formed the same mental picture: the Einstein guy, the barking dog or the paper clip taking a more involved role in my creative process. Yikes!

    At least we know not to expect user-based design and utility testing from Microsoft. Interesting point about being too feature rich: Adobe has the junkies to provide a market for continued software updates with little true change; Microsoft doesn’t exactly have that following.

  2. Open Office 2.0 will be out soon…

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