Office 2010: At last, the suite that users built

Microsoft drew upon real-world usage data to make its latest Office suite the most efficient version yet

What do you give the application that has everything? If your holiday shopping seems like a chore, pity the poor developers on Microsoft's Office product team.

Microsoft Office has every feature you could ever want and then some. They say the average user only needs about 10 percent of what Office has to offer -- and they've been saying it since at least Office 97. So how can Microsoft improve on a product that many customers considered feature-complete long ago?

[ See why InfoWorld's Randall C. Kennedy hates Microsoft Office 2010. | Keep up on business apps with InfoWorld's Technology: Applications newsletter. ]

The answer is by fine-tuning its user experience. Office 2010 entered public beta this week, and while it isn't as radical an overhaul as Office 2007 was, it builds on past offerings with yet another round of new features. This time, the focus is on collaboration, including improved SharePoint integration and Web-based document authoring.

Even more interesting than the big changes in Office 2010, however, are the small ones. Not content to leave well enough alone, the Office development team has made countless incremental improvements to existing features, always with the goal of making Office easier and more efficient to use -- and I, for one, have to hand it to them. In many ways, Office 2010 is a textbook study of how to approach software upgrades for mature applications, one that should serve as an example for any software development house.

Office 2010's face-lift
Naturally, improving the Office user experience meant changing its look and feel. Here is the familiar Excel UI as it exists in Office 2007:

Office-2007-Excel-Window.jpg

Now let's look at the same application in the Office 2010 revamp:

Office-2010-Excel-Window.jpg

Many of the changes are subtle. What's important to realize, however, is that none of the changes happened by chance or for change's own sake. When Microsoft reps briefed me on the Office 2010 beta release last month, they explained that every decision was informed by real-world usage data. (If you can't see the screen images above, go to the original story at InfoWorld.com.)

When customers install the Office 2010 beta, they are greeted by two new icons in the System Tray: a happy face and a sad face. These "Send a Smile" and "Send a Frown" buttons allow users to send immediate, detailed, written feedback to Microsoft, without leaving their Office application contexts. Feedback from the earlier Technical Preview round of testing is already reflected in the beta.

Microsoft learned long ago that you can't follow such feedback blindly, because it can be counterintuitive. For example, customers told Microsoft they love blue; it's predominantly their favorite color. That's why the Office 2007 UI defaulted to a blue color scheme.

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