Friday, 3 April 2009

Technological progress?

I was lucky enough to convince the powers-that-be at my university recently that I needed a new desktop computer for my office. The old beige box had really outlived its useful purpose and was becoming little more than an oversized, over-specced doorstop.

So I'm now the proud owner (well, looker-after) of a shiny new black box, which is much more reliable, faster, and doesn't hold the door open for me. Thing is, it came packaged with Microsoft Office 2007.

I'm quite certain that I'm not the first (nor will I be the last) to whinge about this online, but there probably won't be too many doing it from a qualified perspective. For those who haven't had the pleasure, it feels like the whole menu and interaction system has been changed, with tabs and buttons replacing our familiar menus, and an ethereal 'Office button' as a catch-all for everything general.

I gather it's an effort to make the respective software more usable - and in the long run that may well be the case (despite what I've said before in this blog about other companies, I would expect Microsoft to have teams of usability experts doing this job properly). It's just in the interim they've violated two core principles of usability - consistency and compatibility.

Consistency is about things working the same between and across systems. So if I turn this dial clockwise and the amount increases, I expect the same to happen if I turn that dial clockwise. Compatibility is similar, in that people build expectations about how stuff should work - either through experience with similar systems or just through natural qualities of the design.

So Microsoft spent years drumming us all into a mould for how Office works, only to throw most of it away with the latest evolution and (to the user, at least) start again. It's not compatible with how I've learned previous packages to work, and it's certainly not consistent with older versions. (Even the software formats are not compatible with each other - people sending 2007 documents to old-Office users often find them sent back because they can't be opened.)

I'm exaggerating slightly for theatrical effect - most of the functionality is still there, and in many cases enhanced. It's just how we access it that's changed. Familiar and frequently-used functions like Print and Undo are tucked away in hard to find places. Word Count has a spot of its own on the bottom information bar, but until you've found it you think it's disappeared as you can't find it in the menus (sorry, tabs).

Look, I'm sure I'll get used to this version in time and find it much more efficient. But they're asking their users to adapt (violating rule number one of ergonomics in my view) - possibly for the greater good in the long run, but that's a risk which could backfire (more usable alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard never took off because people were so used to the traditional layout). Nevertheless, product stereotypes have to be broken at some point, otherwise we'll never make progress - an ergonomic dilemma which is hard to resolve. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away with Office 2007, and once I've figured out how to customise it, I'm sure it'll work better for me personally. Until then, though, I feel like I've taken a bit of a step backwards.

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