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What The New Microsoft Office Gets Wrong

Microsoft unveiled a preview of its latest version of Office, and the design is a schizophrenic mess. Here’s why.

This is part of a series highlighting notable entries and entrants to our 2012 Innovation By Design Awards—Ed.

Windows 8, the most radical redesign of Microsoft’s flagship operating system, is often said to be schizophrenic. On the one hand, the user interface that first greets users is beautiful: a fun, playful grid of colorful tiles, based on Microsoft’s well-received Metro design language, that offers access to apps and content. On the other hand, hidden beneath this Metro-enhanced surface is the same desktop-based UI we’ve known for decades, still riddled with taskbars, toolbars, and drop-down menus.

Today, Microsoft unveiled a preview of its latest version of Office, and like Windows 8, the newest iterations of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are just as split-minded. With roughly one billion users worldwide, Microsoft faced the same issues designing Office as it did Windows: How do you re-imagine a ubiquitous piece of software without alienating your global user base? While Microsoft designed this latest release for mobile, engineering the experience for touch-screen devices, and infusing elements of Metro’s design language into the program, Office 15 still feels slightly dated—bogged down by decades of legacy.

When users first install Office, there’s a satisfaction in seeing apps for Word and Excel appear on the Windows 8 start menu—incredibly useful programs that have not yet made their way to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android platform. Windows 8 tablets feel more robust and productive with access to these apps. However, as soon as Word is opened, users are immediately bounced out of the Windows 8 experience and back into the now-outmoded desktop-based UI.

It’s frustrating. I personally love the comfort and space provided by Windows 8's full-screen app experiences. But in the Windows 7-era UI, you’ll find yourself repeatedly tapping the minimize and maximize buttons, trying to needle the exit icon, and dragging windows around while moving around tiny icons on the taskbar. The experience might’ve worked fine on the PC, but on the tablet? It’s annoying to have to deal with these elements of legacy infrastructure. (I can’t imagine dealing with this on a smartphone.)

There’s a strong sense that Microsoft doesn’t want to move on from the PC. For review purposes, the company sent me a Samsung tablet running Windows 8. In addition, they sent a tablet stand, to prop the device in an up-right position, as well as a wireless keyboard and mouse. The point is clear, and it’s one CEO Steve Ballmer has stressed for years: the tablet is not a post-PC device. The tablet is a PC device.

There are pros and cons to this thinking. On the one hand, it is entirely refreshing to have a tablet that’s as powerful as a PC. You can use the tablet just as you would Windows 8 on a laptop; you can install any program that you would on your PC; and you have unfettered access to file menus and USB sticks. There are no jarring restrictions like there are on Apple’s mobile devices.

On the other hand, you do get the sense that in order for Office 15 to reach its potential, you need to carry around these peripherals that weigh down the mobility of this supposedly mobile device. In other words, I don’t want to have to carry a tablet, a stand, a mouse, and keyboard everywhere I go—I might as well carry a laptop. (The Microsoft Surface tablet, with its integrated kickstand and attachable keyboard, in many ways solves these issues.)

Now, despite this criticism, every mobile device maker (especially Apple) has had trouble creating devices that are both for consuming and creating content. With Office, Microsoft has done a very good job bridging this gap, but I wish the company would fully commit to Windows 8 and its Metro design principles.

Let’s now go through the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ll start with the good.

Office 15 brings some fantastic innovations to designing productivity software. Because all documents are cloud-connected, Office remembers where you left off editing a document. When you open the document later on a different device, Office will automatically snap you back into place, so you can get back to work right away.

In OneNote, Microsoft’s program for letting you jot notes with no restrictions, the company introduced an innovative editing interface called a Radial Menu, which lets you do pretty much any necessary task within one or two clicks. Simply highlight a word and a circular menu will appear nearby with options for formatting and other changes. It’s essentially an upgraded version of Microsoft’s Ribbon, the menu system the company implemented to simplify its menubar. Only the Radial Menu is much simpler, more streamlined, and works great with a touch-screen interface. (The Radial Menu will only be available in OneNote, though a top Office manager tells me it could be coming soon to Office’s other applications.)

There are also some areas where the intimacy of mobile devices creates a better experience for Office. In Word, for example, it’s nice to breeze through pages of a full-screen document with the flick of a finger—rather than a scroll of a mouse wheel—making paging through essays as polished as flipping through an e-book on your Amazon Kindle. PowerPoint is especially nice to interact with. Designed mostly for moving charts around, embedding images, or adding a couple words of text, the simple and visual nature of PowerPoint makes it especially geared for touch-screen devices.

But I can’t imagine data-driven programs like Excel to be more efficient on a mobile device—don’t expect Goldman Sachs to start forcing its M&A bankers to learn pivot tables on a Samsung tablet anytime soon. Though Microsoft has worked hard to tailor the experience for mobile devices, the amount of data entry and cell tapping makes a mouse and keyboard more productive than a touch-screen interface (an issue which, again, the Microsoft Surface might solve).

As for the bad? We’ve said this before: The schizophrenic nature of Office, and its dependence on a legacy infrastructure. When a Microsoft Word document is opened, you see the simple user interface it could be. Across the top, a slim menu of icons; below, a blank page. The issue is that the screen is most often cluttered. To access any of the menus, a separate menu drops down, followed by even more drop-down menus which fill up the screen. To type, a keyboard bounces up filling most of the other screen real estate. There’s a taskbar monopolizing part of the screen; there are minimize and maximize buttons. Throughout the process, unwanted pop-up boxes would appear when tapping certain icons, which couldn’t be reached without minimizing the on-screen keyboard; the toolbar also can’t be seen when the virtual keyboard appears, so it just seems to be a pointless use of real estate.

And that’s the ugliest part of Office: having the keyboard up, along with an ugly Windows XP-esque pop-up box, as well as what amounts to three thick rows of menubars. You’re left with maybe an inch or two of space to see the document itself. The screen is just completely cluttered. PJ Hough, a corporate VP of the Office division, told me Microsoft is wary of limited screen real estate. "I think more and more the model for working on smaller screens and smaller devices will be to give the app as much space as you can, to let the app breathe," he says.

But in many instances using Office, the experience simply feels claustrophobic.

All in all, I just wish (again) that Microsoft would commit to its Metro design principles and get rid of its schizophrenic elements. When you go to open a document, for example, a beautiful blue column slides out from the left side of the screen with a list of options to create, save, export, or open documents. Click on each of these buttons, and the right side of the screen will refresh with an overlay of simple selections and basic icons—leaving your experience uninterrupted. But click to open a file? The experience reverts to the outmoded era of Windows, with a pop-up box that is hard to navigate, drag around, and type within.

There are positive aspects of Office 15. But ultimately, the program still relies too heavily on mouse and keyboard, and does not take advantage enough of the touch-screen interface and Metro design principles—nor is it refined enough for such limited-screen real estate.

Simply put, the best part about having Microsoft Office on your tablet is having Microsoft Office on your tablet.

[Image: whitelightgrapher/Shutterstock]