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Office 2007 – Interface Design Revolution?

Office 2007. Revolution in usability? Innovation in interface design? Hell no, not if you’re a screen reader user at least.

I installed Office 2007 at home recently. Fully ready to embrace the next evolution in interface design, I thought I’d take things easy. A little light emailing, perhaps some gentle word processing. I mean, how difficult could it be? I’ve been through several different versions of Office, surely a few changes to the interface can’t be a problem?

Several hours later, an exhausted supply of curse words and a lifetime’s supply of patience behind me, I uninstalled it. Never, I vowed, would it darken my desktop again.

Screen reader users do a great deal by memory. It isn’t efficient to stop and listen to every menu item as it flashes past, so we remember key stroke patterns instead. It’s fast, efficient and it works well. The trouble is that with Office 2007, all the rules have changed. If it wasn’t bad enough that everything has moved, that menus go across instead of down and that all the shortcut keys have changed into something less easy to remember than Swahili, now even cornerstone keystrokes behave differently each time you use them.

The Alt key for example, used to faithfully take you to the File menu. From there, a couple to the right and one down and you knew exactly where you’d be. Now, the Alt key takes you to whichever menu you activated last, meaning you’ve got to stop and listen to what’s being spoken or learn yet another keystroke. Even the motion of moving sideways through menus feels awkward and counter intuitive. Am I the only one?

I’ve heard it said that the intention was to provide a more user friendly interface, to group tasks more logically. It’s a good strategy, but then perhaps someone can explain to me why the task for inserting a table of contents into Word, isn’t listed under the Insert menu?Confused? You will be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually very at home with Microsoft. It’s the best technological fit for a screen reader and it pretty much did what I needed it to do. Until now. For the first time in 15 years, I can’t send emails without phoning a friend, I can’t update a Word document without asking the audience and my chances of completing a task in a sensible time frame are considerably less than 50/50.

Time and technology wait for no-one however, no matter how closely I clutch Office 2003 to my chest and swear undying attachment. Sooner or later, at home or at work, Office 2007 will catch up with me. There’s nothing much I can do about that, except vent my feelings on a blog, prepare a fresh supply of swear words, gather my patience, grit my teeth and get on with it. Just don’t expect me to like it!


  1. Ben 'Cerbera' Millard | September 11th, 2007 | 3:04 pm

    How do you find the IE7 interface? As a sighted user, it seems like a disaster to me. Press Alt to display the menu bar. Why? Where else does it need to be?

    Browse multiple pages with desaturated blue boxes…apparently these are meant to be tabs. So why not make them look like tabs?

    I get the feeling Microsoft’s usability people, the people who make Windows 95 and Windows XP the most usable of their era, are being ignored or have been replaced.

  2. Adrian Higginbotham | September 11th, 2007 | 4:41 pm

    In a bizzarre reversal of user experience I find ie7 with a screenreader the best thing since sliced bread. Well maybe not quite that good but I do like the multiple tabs, no more need for multiple windows. significantly less keystrokes to move between whichever Browser tab I’m in and any other application. My Office 2007 experience isn’t quite as extreme, I don’t for instnace find Outlook all that different, although I am still quite unfamiliar with it and given a choice pick up the 2003 machine daily rather than the 2007 one. Just one more thing we’ll get used to I’m sure the difficulty is as a screenreader user it doesn’t just take longer for the tools to catch-up, it takes longer for us as users to catch-up too.

  3. Nick Freear | September 11th, 2007 | 5:31 pm

    I’ve not tried Office 2007, but I used to develop Windows software applications. A golden rule of user-interface design used to be, if bits of your software look like bits of Microsoft software (the File and Edit menus, Save and Open dialogs in Word for instance) then they should behave in the same way, including using the same keyboard shortcuts. Microsoft themselves followed this rule across the Office suite and between versions – it seems they’ve broken it.
    I searched for “Office 2007 Classic mode”, but the result is not encouraging,
    And, other people are critical,
    (By the way, who’s written this article?)

  4. Vnce T. | September 11th, 2007 | 11:25 pm

    Several people here are miles further along the techie trail than I am, so what’s the problem?

    I only got rid of office 97 (yes, really) because Win XP started not to allow it to work properly. As Bill Gates once said, “Our stuff works better with our stuff”. Of course, I trust every word.

    Casting MS Office aside was an opportunity to look at some alternatives, but they were all pretty hopeless for me, I regret to say. Having failed to get a squeak out of OpenOffice and having come unstuck with the various online suites (Zoho and the likes), I gave in and paid up for Office 2007 about 8 or 9 months ago.

    Since then I’ve mounted a sort of pincer movement approach to learning the thing, partly learning the odd new keystroke when I’ve got the time, and mostly banging on with all those old keystrokes I was using before, and most of those work.

    If I press Alt and get the Office button thing, and arrow right, I get pretty much a running commentary from the screen reader about what each thing does. I don’t listen to much of it before pressing on, but it’s all there and available in a free screen reader such as NVDA. So I’m reasonably happy.

    Don’t ask me about the logic of the new menu structure, because like Leonie it leaves me cold. The colour schemes don’t help at all, me being one of those blindies with a bit of sight, and the blue on blue default is not exactly one of the brightest design ideas I’ve come across. but then, small white mouse pointers on a white background, are also part of the Windows design tradition.

    Anyone who’s desperate enough can find an add-in that puts Office 2003 menus up there as well, one such being Classic Menus.

    (by the way, this may be a free download, but it’s not a free program. I’m sure you’ve been there before!)

    As for IE7, well, I quite like it, and can’t help noticing that they seem to have pinched some nice features from Firefox. The Favorites menu is a bit of a mess, and I’m still not convinced about being able to use feeds effectively, but other wise it’s OK. There are plenty of ways of using feeds elsewhere anyway.

    Got to admit all this redesign is extremely silly, but if MS want to amuse themselves putting ribbons on their software, I’ll try not to let it change my life. Wait till they have Bezier curved menus with Christmas lights on, all programmed in Java. Things could be worse!


  5. Léonie Watson | September 12th, 2007 | 10:32 am

    IE7 isn’t too bad, it’s not the fundamental shift away from the familiar interface that Office 2007 is. It’s different, but not so radically that it feels like going back to Computing 101 class.
    I agree with Adrian that the tabs work much more effectively than having multiple browser windows open. I’m sure he’s also being much more pragmatic about Office 2007 than I am, and he’s certainly right in saying that it takes screen readers longer to catch up.
    I’ve never counted the number of different key commands required to operate a screen reader comprehensively, but it’s got to be up there in the hundreds. In one fell swoop, MS have added another overwhelming batch to the already extensive set. It can certanly be overcome, but I’m not sure the pain outweighs the gain right now.

  6. Ben 'Cerbera' Millard | September 15th, 2007 | 6:43 am

    So when it comes to IE7, being able to see is a disadvantage? Just as well I use Firefox for regular browsing. :)

    I’m avoiding Vista and all the new breed of Microsoft interfaces. I find Windows XP a really productive environment and am happy to keep it.

  7. AlastairC | September 15th, 2007 | 2:23 pm

    From a usability point of view you can see just what they’ve tried to do, which is to optimise for the most used functions. It’s well known that 80% of people use 20% of the functions of a program like Word. Now they’ve optimised for the 80%

    However, I think probably 90% or more of their users are quite used to the old interface, so their is quite a learning ‘hump’. For most, it’s probably more effective. I use both, and for some of the more complex tasks 2007 is much easier (e.g. doing columns). However, some simple things that I used to know catch me out (e.g. inserting captions).

    From a screen reader point of view, I can’t argue with Léonie’s points, there could certainly be more done to aid people over the learning ‘hump’. On the other hand, I think once the dust settles, Office 2007 will be considered a better interface overall, so I hope that support can be put in place to help screen reader users.

  8. Steve Cutway | September 16th, 2007 | 6:39 pm

    For screen reader users (and possibly sighted people too) having trouble accessing or understanding the new interface in Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2007, I suggest trying Classic Menu for Office 2007  v 3.5 from Once installed, press Alt+q twice (ie., Alt+q, q) to bring up the Office 2007 toolbar as a menu. Instead of navigating horizontally across the toolbar as in office 2003, down arrow to hear each menu choice. Most have submenus which you open with Right Arrow. I just installed this software for a new student and she’s very happy with it. You can try it for free for 15 days after which it costs $29.95 US. Easier than rolling back to office 2003.

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