Introducing the Command Well

There have always been certain commands in Office which aren't available as part of the default user interface. Sometimes, these commands are seldom-used alternatives to features that are part of the common UI. For instance, there are many commands that can be used select cells or regions in Excel in slightly different ways. It turns out that only a few of them are necessary to do pretty much everything that's possible though.

More frequently, there are features which had their day but have long-since been replaced by better features. In some cases, we keep these old features around in case someone wants to use them, but we don't clutter up the main user interface with them. For instance, there are a few features available to slightly change the 3-D orientation of comments in Excel... but since only about 5 people have clicked these commands in the whole time people have been using Excel 2003, it's a better use of space to bring forward more useful features instead.

Finally, there are a set of features which were built for whatever reason and they've never been exposed as part of the default UI. Some of the best ones from previous versions we've actually gone out of our way to expose on the Ribbon, such as Zoom to Selection in Excel. Others in Excel I'd love to know the history behind, such as Multiplication Sign (which types the "*" character at the cursor) and Solitaire which... well, launches Solitaire.

Where do these phantom features live? A place we call the Command Well.

The Command Well in Excel 2007 (Click to enlarge)

Hold on. I thought "command well" was a well-known term, but I just Googled it and one of my prior articles was the first relevant hit. Hmmm. Well, now you know our internal name for the list of commands in the product. Have you heard that term before or am I totally imagining that it's known outside of Microsoft?

Anyway, In Office 2003 and prior versions, you could access the command well by clicking Customize on the Tools menu. In Office 2007. we merged the command well into a Customize tab in the Options dialog box, because in usability again and again we witnessed that people didn't know the difference between the two entry points and would choose either Tools.Customize or Tools.Options pretty much at random.

The Customize tab of Office 2007 Options has two lists of commands.

On the left side is a list of all of the commands in the product, organized into several categories. On the right side are the commands you have added to the Quick Access Toolbar. You can move things easily between the lists.

How are the commands on the left side organized?

At the top are four special categories:

  • Popular Commands: This category is the default, and contains a hand-picked list of commands that we believe people will be most likely to add to the Quick Access Toolbar. All of these commands also exist elsewhere in other categories... putting them here just helps address the beta feedback we got about the full list of commands being very long to navigate. This category is new since Beta 2.
  • Commands Not In the Ribbon: This is the place where we've put together all of the features that are not exposed directly in the Ribbon. Some of these are in context menus, some of these have alternative (often better) versions in the Ribbon, and a few are deprecated or nonstandard functionality. But if you're looking for the Colon feature which inserts a ":" at the insertion point, you know where to look.
  • All Commands: The clearinghouse of everything in the product. A very long list, but if you can't find it elsewhere, this is the place to look.
  • Macros: Any macros you have created are listed here so that you can add them to the Quick Access Toolbar for one-click access.

After these top four special categories, the rest of the categories are in logical order where commands are grouped together according to their location in the product.

First come the features that are part of the Office Menu. Then, in order, each of core tabs, such as Home, Insert, and Page Layout have their own categories containing the commands that are with each of the tabs. Finally, all of the contextual tabs such as Table Layout and Chart Design are listed, grouped by the type of object the commands operate on.

That's it. Within the categories of the command well, you can see the thousands of features that make up Microsoft Office.

Next time, a few secrets to make the command well easier to use.