Backstage Office 2010 File View Evolution

Microsoft takes plenty of grief for its user interface design.

The complaints are well deserved about as often as not, meaning that some things just ARE complicated, and no interface can make them simple, and sometimes, it seems as if no one in Redmond actually uses the product before it ships.

Then, of course, there are the legions of journalists who report as often as possible that Macs are easier to use. Ironically, going from using a PC to using a Mac is just about as unintuitive as the converse. However, Macs always seem to look friendlier (or happier?) than Windows.

Be that as it may, one criticism has persisted over the years. Usability experts and design professionals agree that too much functionality is buried so deep inside of various menus that users assume either the software doesn’t do what they need, or they give up before they can find whatever it is they are looking for.

Microsoft Office 2010
In Microsoft’s defense, many of its core applications, including most Microsoft Office applications, now provide so much functionality beyond what a basic application such as a word processor does, that it is impossible to “expose” every feature without overwhelming users with buttons and icons for numerous functions they will never use.

The Office 2010 Technical Preview showed us that Microsoft intends to change all of that.

Office Ribbon Interface

To its credit, Microsoft did not give up and starting with Office 2007 began overhauling the Microsoft Office interface by getting functions out from under the reviled nested menus and placing them in an easier to find row of icons and functions known as the Ribbon Interface.

Ironically, despite doing just what the usability experts had been suggesting all along, the new interface was met with a lot of resistance. Users developed a love-hate relationship with the new Ribbon, with many users complaining that the easier to find, un-menued functions, made it harder to find what they needed.

It seems that one of the most difficult aspects of the new interface for users to understand was that what they saw when they first started the new Office 2007 applications was just the default structure.

In what should have been hailed as a significant move forward in user interface design, end-users could actually make the toolbar look exactly the way they wanted. The ribbon even customized itself depending on how wide the window was so that buttons and icons didn’t get squished or scrolled off the screen. This may have been most confusing of all because users were finally right when they said, “It was right here a minute ago.”

Since its release, the ribbon has become less of an irritation as users have grown accustomed to using it, although there are plenty of people who still hate it. Now, the most prominent complaint is that switching back and forth between the traditional interface and the new interface is confusing.

Fortunately, that issue is already being addressed. One of the central new features of Office 2010 is that all of the applications will have the new ribbon UI, including Microsoft Outlook.

Microsoft Office Application Integration

Moving forward, Microsoft introduced something new with the Office 2010 technical preview.

In addition to a uniform ribbon interface design across all applications, Office 2010 also includes something called Backstage. Backstage is not a new application, nor is it specific to one of the Office apps, rather, it is a new view of the “behind the scenes” functionality of the files that are created by the various applications like Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook.

Backstage Office 2010 File View Evolution

When Microsoft Office first became widely used, each product within the suite handled a single task, Word was for writing text, with an occasional picture, Excel was for manipulating data, PowerPoint was for making slides, and so on. However, as technology advanced and users came to expect their software to do more, the Office apps began to gain new features. Many of these features crossed-over between products.

For example, a report written in MS Word might require a chart or graph. Creating a graph in Excel and then copying and pasting it into Word was fine, so long as the graph did not need updating. Otherwise, the user had to go back into Excel change the graph, then re-copy, and paste it back into Word.

An even worse scenario occurred when the user made a change to the spreadsheet, and thus the graph, but did not remember to manually update the Word document, which meant it now contained inaccurate information. This was not only time consuming and inefficient, it was frustrating to users.

Soon a graph could be inserted into Word so that it stayed attached to the original spreadsheet. When changes were made the graph could be updated automatically. This integration has only grown more common and more complicated as time has progressed. Users who frequently depend on this advanced functionality are starting to hit the area where managing it all is becoming more difficult, especially with new collaboration features making it tough to tell who is updating what, when, and how it should or should not be getting back into other documents.

Office 2010 Backstage

Microsoft jumped out ahead of the curve here for most users with Backstage, a way of viewing and managing some of the more complicated interlinking, collaboration, and security of Office documents. For individual users that don’t often use the integration between programs, it probably seems like a bit of overkill. For users in a fast moving office environment working together with multiple users in multiple locations, it seems heaven-sent.

In the Office 2010 technical preview, the functionality of each application has been categorized by whether or not it affects the content of the document itself, or if the function affects how you do something with the document that has been created.

For example, virtually everyone prints something from Office sooner or later. However, printing doesn’t really have anything to do with what is in the document, but those features really matter in making that document worthwhile.

Printing on letterhead, using landscape versus portrait, picking a different printer than the default printer, and so on, are all key to getting what you wanted in the first place when you started typing a document in MS Word, a usable document.

However, those settings are often buried in non-intuitive places. Switching to landscape mode, or printing to a different tray are the most common examples. You can do it with a single button in Print Preview mode, but if you don’t use the preview, then it is buried behind the Properties button for the printer.

The new Backstage view makes this all much easier and consistent across applications. Clicking Print brings up the Print Preview automatically, and all of the standard printing settings are listed down the left hand side, making it easy to switch to manual feed, landscape orientation, and collated for any print job.

There is a catch though — you have to find the Backstage view first.

It turns out that for whatever its shortcomings, computer users all over the world have gotten so used to certain elements of the traditional Windows application interface that those elements are actually the easiest ways for users to access that functionality.

In the case of Microsoft Office 2010, when people are ready to Print, Save, Open or create New files, they all look for the same thing, the File menu. There is just one little problem; it isn’t there.

backstage-menu-button-evolutionThe Office 2010 Technical Preview uses an Office Logo button similar to the one in the Office 2007 applications that have the ribbon interface instead of any sort of File Menu.

This was one of the major complaints about the Ribbon interface when Office 2007 was released.

For whatever functions might be buried underneath inconsistent menus, the File Menu provides every application, whether a Microsoft product or not, the same Big 4 functions: New, Open, Save, Print.

When that went away, everything else got lost.

The Office Icon replaces the file menu, adds to it, and makes it better and more usable — none of which matters if you can’t find it.

Turns out that users assumed the colorful little logo was, just a logo, and not a button, part of the drawback of using the “cleaner and easier” Mac like graphics instead of creating a shadow that makes a button look like, well … a button.

Microsoft tried to make it more obvious in Office 2010, by making it the same height and putting it in the same row as the other menus, but it didn’t really work. For users who had been using Office 2007 it seemed as though the Office button they had just gotten used to had disappeared.

For users who hadn’t worked with Office 2007, a missing File menu was a missing File menu, regardless of what buttons and tabs they had added. In fact, most users trying to find what was under the icon that leads to the Backstage view, clicked on Home assuming that it meant “main” like on the Internet.

Even if you did click the right thing and find the Backstage view, you still might have thought you got it wrong. That is because those Big 4 you were probably looking for weren’t there, at least at first glance.

Three of them were under the “Info” menu (defeating the purpose of unburying menu items) and New was third on a list that users expected it to be fourth on.

This could be another saga in poor user interface design, but the value Microsoft has reaped from the widespread public preview and beta releases is that they are finding these things out before people start paying for the product. Recent posts on the Microsoft Office 2010 Engineering Blog have already detailed these issues AND shown the fixes already in the works.

From bringing back the File menu (which replaces the ambiguous icon), and moving the Save, Save As, Open items from under the Info menu to the main listing, Microsoft is getting it right before a single customer buys the product.

If this keeps up, Office 2010 may be the most popular Microsoft release since Windows 7.

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