Matt Gemmell

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It's a paradigm

Interface 6 min read

Well, what do you know? It’s a UI-related post. It’s been a while. Today, we’re covering the new Microsoft Office 12 UI, and Jakob Nielsen’s article on it.

Before you read on, you should read Nielsen’s article, linked above, and you can also read the Office 12 UI Overview page if you like. I’ll try to summarise relevant points from both here anyway.

I came to this by seeing Michael’s link to Pierre’s rebuttal of Nielsen’s article in my feeds. Pierre rightly notes how Nielsen completely fudges the difference between a GUI and the concept of WYSIWYG editing, but I can understand that to some extent: Nielsen writes as a usability pundit, and it makes far better copy to talk of the end of an eternally-buzzy paradigm like What You See Is What You Get. He also throws in reference to “Macintosh-style interaction design”, presumably to court controversy whilst picking a safe target.

Now, I confess to never really having liked Nielsen much. I read his Alertbox column periodically, and I find his writing to overwhelmingly be just common sense and generalisations, delivery preachily. His basic professional mode of operation seems to be standing at the station until he notices a train leaving, leaping onto the train, writing up an oratory as he runs to the rear carriage, then delivering his speech from the end of the train to all those who are by now running along behind. He then alights at the next station, and repeats. Fair enough, but hardly compelling. But let’s get to the core issues raised by his latest piece.

The argument says that Office 12 (the new version of Microsoft Office which is, I believe, to be released with Windows Vista late next year) embodies a new and exciting UI paradigm composed of two main parts:

  • Instead of presenting dozens of toolbars and menus all at once, applications have interaction "modes" (for example "writing", "page layout", "working with references" and so on for a word processor), with the most commonly needed commands for each mode readily available when you're in that mode. Grouping commands, tools etc by what you're trying to do, rather than by the commands' relation to each other.
  • Showing users the possible outcomes of a set of commands, and letting them pick one: "I want it look like that".

Whilst these are both likely to be good things, they’re hardly new. This is just an evolution of a well established concept, and very much part of what we understand as WYSIWYG editing. Let’s talk about these two ideas one at a time.

Results-Oriented Interface

This is Nielsen’s excessively masturbatory term for the grouping of commands based on the mode of interaction, or what Microsoft is calling Command Tabs. Here’s a pic of how it looks in Word 12:

Command Tabs

The blue “Write” tab is a Command Tab, as are Insert and Page Layout. You can click that pic for a larger version. As you can see, the commonly-required commands for the current mode are shown in a bar below the tabs. Fair enough, I say. But hardly new. You only have to look to Adobe Illustrator CS2 to see a very similar concept, namely the contextual Control Palette:

Control Palette

It provides the most commonly-required controls for doing whatever it is that you’re currently doing, gathered from all of Illustrator’s myriad floating palettes and menu commands. So it’s not a Microsoft-only thing, as we can see.

But this concept of context-sensitive controls is almost as old as GUIs. Controls have always been grouped by function, and indeed Microsoft Office has about 257 different toolbars designed for specific editing “modes”. Indeed, Microsoft also makes mention of another “new” feature called Contextual Tabs, which are Command Tabs that appear when you’ve selected a particular type of object:

Contextual Tabs

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that happens already, in the guise of the Graphics (or Image or whatever it’s called) toolbar/palette.

All the same, that’s all fine and fair and useful; it’s just not a recent development. The new wrinkle seems to be the concept of a control being able to be in more than one place at once, for example you’d probably want a Font popup somewhere close-by no matter what you’re currently doing in Word.

So, contextually-relevant gatherings of controls, to give you the most useful subset of the application’s full functionality, right at your fingertips (as they say). Cool, but nowhere near revolutionary.

WYGIWYS

“WYGIWYS” is what Nielsen calls the concept of showing you a set of previews of how your document could look, and letting you pick one. His feeling is that it’s a new paradigm, and entirely worthy of this cute transposition of WYSIWYG. Which is, of course, complete and utter wankery.

It’s not a new paradigm, and it’s not even remotely new at all. I call it the concept of Pick How You Want It To Look, or PHYWITL, which despite not being nearly as pronounceable and buzz-friendly as WYSIWYG (or WYGIWYS), doesn’t attempt to overstate its own importance. Let’s have a quick quote from Microsoft as to what this is all about:

Galleries are at the heart of the redesigned applications. Galleries provide users with a set of clear results to choose from when working on their document, spreadsheet, presentation, or Access database. By presenting a simple set of potential results, rather than a complex dialog box with numerous options, the Galleries simplify the process of producing professional looking work. The traditional dialog box interfaces are still available for those wishing a greater degree of control over the result of the operation.

We immediately have to note two things about this:

  1. The first sentence initially fills me with horror, conjuring a nightmare vision of a world where you can't even make some text bold without having to go through the Boldface Wizard. But when you read on you realise it's not so bad.
  2. The old Office UI style will still be available (though presumably not on by default), so fear not.

So what does it mean? Incredibly, all it’s talking about is this kind of thing:

Gallery

In case you missed it, the important bit is that you can see what the margins look like. You don’t just have the words “Narrow” and “Wide”, you also have little pictures of what those types of margin actually look like. Paradigm shift? Hardly.

All this is just an extension of visual previews. You know, like in say Pages when you’re choosing a document template:

Pages Templates

Or in Keynote when you’re picking a theme for your presentation:

Keynote Themes

Or in RapidWeaver when you’re picking a page or site theme in the drawer:

Rapidweaver Themes

A really good example is the Book editing interface in iPhoto:

iPhoto Books

Microsoft’s existing apps do things like show presentation previews when you’re picking a template in PowerPoint, and even show you a miniature version of your table whilst you’re still picking how many cells it will have:

Word Tables

This kind of “preview” UI exists throughout GUI applications, and it’s fundamentally WYSIWYG. There’s nothing “new” about it, especially given that even the icons shown on toolbar buttons and in menus are sometimes a form of visualisation of what function they perform.

Photoshop Align Linked Layers

The only thing remotely recent which Microsoft’s material mentions is Live Preview, i.e. the idea that, say, as I just roll over the menu commands in the screenshot above (that’s the Align submenu when you’ve selected one of a set of linked layers in Photoshop, by the way), my layers will realign themselves according to whatever command my mouse is pointing to at the time, just to show me exactly what will happen if I actually choose that command.

That’s great. It’s beautiful, useful, and intuitive. It’s not remotely new; indeed, the only reason we haven’t always had it everywhere is performance.

So, any claims of innovation are false, but this is all hardly bad news. Microsoft is trying something quite new for them here, and that’s got to be good. Particularly in Office, since (as Nielsen notes), UI changes in Office do drive UI changes across the industry. This isn’t a change just for the sake of change and looking cool, unlike say making your GUI windows look like they’re made of frosted glass, distorting anything which lies behind them; I call this look “Bathroom Windows”.

Windows Vista

PHYWITL and contextual controls aren’t anything new, but it’s new to try out so radical a departure from the usual “toolbars, toolbars everywhere!” approach in such a complex, universally used professional application family as MS Office. That’s significant.

This concept of live preview, whilst certainly not being in any way a “new technology” (as Microsoft literally calls it on the previously-linked Office UI Overview page), is still probably the exception rather than the rule, but it is officially Arriving. Before long, most of your apps are going to show you exactly what the result of each of their commands will be on your current document, without you having to explicitly do-and-undo to find out. Surely that can’t be anything but a good thing?

I think this new Office UI style is a positive development, irrespective of any feelings about Microsoft and/or Jakob Nielsen. We already have these UI concepts throughout Mac OS X, and they have a strong heritage on the Mac platform in general, and it’s great that the behemoth that is MS Office is trying to embrace a more streamlined and comprehensible interaction model after all these years. I look forward to kicking its tyres next year.

Clarus!