Ye Olde Museum Of Office Past (Why the UI, Part 2)

This is the second part in my eight-part series of entries in which I outline some of the reasons we decided to pursue a new user interface for Office 2007.

Today, I want to take you on a journey. A journey that starts back into the cold recesses of the mid-1980s, back into the days of EGA and serial port mice and the MS-DOS Executive.

Microsoft Word 1.0 for Windows shipped in 1989 after a long development cycle and was designed to run on Windows 386. There's not much more to the program than what you see here, but it gives you an idea of how far Word's come. The Berlin Wall was still up but if you squint your eyes, you can see the core of today's Word UI already present. There's an application-level menu bar, which Windows evolved from the Mac's top-level menu bar and the bottom-of-the-screen menu display of Microsoft's DOS programs. Word 1.0 also includes something not seen often in user interfaces since PARC: the toolbar. First used by Microsoft in Excel, it might look like there are two toolbars in Word 1.0, but in reality only the top bar is called a toolbar. Interestingly, the bottom row of buttons is called the "Ribbon"--something we didn't discover until I went back and made these screenshots some number of months ago. It's a small world.

(Word 1.0 - Click to view full picture)

By the time Word 2.0 hit the market in 1992, the basic structure of the Word user interface has already solidified exactly as it is in Word 2003 today. File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table, Window, Help. A "Standard" and "Formatting" toolbar. Here's a program that was in design more than 15 years ago and yet the basic user interface has remained stable all this time. (I was in junior high school at the time, programming on my Apple //c.)

(Word 2.0 - Click to view full picture)

Yet, the thing was, this UI worked well for a program like Word 2.0. It had fewer than 100 commands, and because the Word team was able to plan the ideal menu structure for their program, the organization made sense. The toolbars were simply efficient duplicates of functionality found in the menu structure--no features existed only on toolbars. Browsing the menus was straightforward and fast--most menus had less than 10 items on them, and no menu hosted any fly-off hierarchical menus.

Word 6.0 was a runaway hit. Capitalizing on the popularity of Windows 3.1, this was the turning point in Word's competition with WordPerfect. In terms of new user interface evolution, Word 6 introduced right-click context menus, tabbed dialog boxes, wizards, and toolbars along the bottom of the screen. The number of toolbars jumped from two in the previous version to eight in Word 6, and the menus became more full as features were added to the product.

(Word 6.0 - Click to view full picture)

Word 95 was the first 32-bit version of the product, designed to ride the wave of hoopla from the Windows 95 launch in August 1995. Although it was pretty much a straight port of Word 6, one small, innovative feature was introduced that most people would agree they wouldn't want to live without: red-squiggle underlined spell-checking. Many people cite Word 95 as the last in a generation of simpler, trimmed-down, pre-Internet word processors.

(Word 95 - Click to view full picture)

While a small team had been working to port Office to the 32-bit OS and eventually shipping Office 95, a much larger team was working on what would become Office 97. Office 97 was a huge blockbuster, setting software sales records. Chock full of new features, Word 97 marked the beginning of a new stage of super-rich productivity apps.

(Word 97 - Click to view full picture)

This richness took its toll in complexity, however. Office 97 introduced "command bars", an ultra-customizable user interface in which menus and toolbars were really the same thing. Every menu and toolbar could be dragged around to every side of the screen and floated or docked. Feature designers within Microsoft took full advantage of this new technology, with the number of toolbars rocketing up to 18 and the number of commands on the top-level menus nearly doubling.

Arguably, the most important UI decision made in Word 97 was a simple one: introducing hierarchical menus. In all previous versions of Word, menus were a single list of items--easily scannable, easy to navigate. Excel, taking a cue from 1-2-3's labyrinthine UI, had previously introduced hierarchical menus and though there was an internal struggle between the development teams, eventually the Excel model prevailed and Word 97 got multi-level hierarchical menus.

Why was the decision made? Well, the top-level menus in Word were full. Although an ever-increasing number of features were implemented only on toolbars, some features still needed menu entries and no room was left for them. Wrapping commands into multiple levels made more room for new commands. More room meant more features.

The downside, however, was clear and eventually terminal: increased complexity. It's much more difficult for people to form a scanning strategy with hierarchical menus: you have to keep track at each moment which levels you've visited and which you've haven't. What was once a simple structure to visualize was now a more complicated, branching structure. Browsing for features was now less like looking at a shopping list and more like traversing a complex data structure.

Word 97 was the first version in which we started to see signs that people were feeling less in control of the program. Office 97 was a huge hit with both individuals and companies, but It was also marked the beginning of a long series of press stories accusing Office of being "bloated."

(How interesting that today some people hearken back to Office 97 as being some sort of ultra-simple software panacea and how different that is from how people viewed it at the time.)

Next time: How Office worked to reduce the perception of "bloat."