Dumbing Down Daisy

Christopher Rath


Dear MS Office 2010 Product Manager,

Thank you for removing the Office Startup Assistant from Office 2010. It was making me more productive than other people I work with, and its removal reduces my productivity and helps me fit in better at work. Telling me (on your "What's changed in Office 2010 MSDN page) that it's replaced with a "new" feature you're calling "Backstage" that has existed in Office for many years helps me to understand that your developers know even less about how to use Office than my co-workers, so I am reassured that MS developers will not be introducing anything innovative soon that will challenge my co-workers and further ostracize me for knowing too much.


For many years, MS Office has been the dominant office productivity suite in the North American marketplace. Many other products have been released, but no one has been able to shake Microsoft from their #1 position. Being #1 in your category is a wonderful achievement for a company, but companies holding that spot sometimes become complacent and forget their roots; in other words, they forget that they exist to serve their customers.

Microsoft is just such a #1 category placeholder company: they keep forgetting about us users.


There are many examples of Microsoft's loss of end-user focus; however, this essay focuses on one: the change in MS Office's user interface: the replacement of the Office toolbars with the Ribbon (see The Story of the Ribbon for Microsoft's perspective on the introduction). The new Ribbon suffers from several user productivity reduction issues:

Button Movement

Alan Kaye of Xerox Parc, a world recognized user interface expert, documents that users become more productive (that is, able to work more quickly) as they learn where to click.  Specifically, a user's eye-hand coordination improves over time when buttons are always in the same physical location on the screen: the user is able to position the mouse more quickly because they can anticipate where the button they want is going to appear. Microsoft makes a point of referencing Xerox Parc's research in its rationale for the changes it made in the Office user interface, so it is significant to me that they neglected this aspect of Alan Kaye's work.

The new Office UI does not attempt to keep individual buttons in the same location; rather, items on the ribbon come and go on their own as Office attempts to guess what button you might want to use next. This is a nice idea, but more often than not Office guesses wrong and the user must read the screen and click to re-display the desired button. This drastically slows down the user, radically reducing productivity.

Increased Mouse Clicks

Every mouse click takes time to perform. Added to this is the time taken to position the mouse cursor before you click. Microsoft claims that the Ribbon has reduced the number of mouse clicks a user must execute and makes users more productive; however, anyone spending more than a few minutes with the new Office UI will quickly experience the opposite effect.

It must be conceded that the new UI does make it easier to discover new-to-you Office commands; that is, for you to find Office functions you have not previously used. However, once you have found that command, it often becomes more difficult to regularly use than in previous versions of Office.

Each time Office incorrectly guesses which button you want to use next, the new UI adds at least one mouse movement+click compared to the old UI. Also, Microsoft took many less commonly used functions and consciously buried them deep inside the Ribbon: for example, the Advanced Document Properties dialog box now takes 6 clicks compared to 2 clicks in the old UI.

No Customisation

Microsoft has stated that the statistical data Microsoft gathered with Office 2003 shows that only a very small percentage of all 400 million Office users worldwide customized their Office UI. While this sounds like compelling evidence to abandon support for customisation of Office's UI, when you have such a large customer base then even a small percentage is a large absolute number of users; in this case, 3% of 400 million is 12 million users (we'll assume a number of 3% since Microsoft didn't' quote a specific percentage).

If one assumes that each Office user paid $10 for their copy of Office, then 12 million users represent $120 million in revenue.  Surely, for $120,000,000 Microsoft can afford to continue to provide this functionality. In reality, each copy of Office nets Microsoft far more than $10; so, this revenue number is very, very conservative.

I readily concede that most Office users have no desire to customise their copy of Office; but, the lack of customisation has greatly reduced my personal productivity, and I am not alone: there are millions of other Office users who have been similarly inconvenienced.

Closing Remarks

As Microsoft ably demonstrates in The Story of the Ribbon, the Office UI had fundamental problems that needed to be fixed. The issue I have with the new user interface is that while it fixed some of the old UI's problems, it both introduced new ones and permanently reduced the productivity paradigm.

In the old Office UI, while it was difficult to discover new-to-you features, once you had uncovered those features they were straightforward to use. To state this another way: while the initial learning curve was high, once past that initial speed bump productivity was high.

In the new Office UI, it is much easier for neophytes to discover Office features and functions; but, once discovered, productivity is permanently poor. While this may not matter to many computer users, for those of us who spend all day at a computer using Office this means we must work longer each day—since each individual task now takes more time to perform.

I believe the fundamental, underlying problem is that those inside Microsoft who design Office, do not spend their days in front of a computer using Office. As a result, while they can theorise about how Office might make users productive, their own paradigm of use is as an Office neophyte; thus, Office 2007 introduced Office for Dummies as Microsoft's sole offering in the marketplace. MS Office's designers scratched their own itch and left Office gurus in the lurch.

I wish I could say that Office 2010 addressed the issues I've raised in this essay; but, it did not.  In fact, Office 2010 has made the situation even worse.

If you too miss the Office Startup Assistant [Start] menu links, download and install the small package I've created to address this issue: OfficeLaunch.zip  this package provides [Start] menu links for "New Office Document" and "Open Office Document".

©Copyright 2011, Christopher & Jean Rath
Telephone: 613-824-4584
Address: 1371 Major Rd., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1E 1H3
Last updated: 2011/02/04 @ 14:44:20 ( )