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

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In practice, however, having all that blue onscreen distorted users' color perception. Placed images would appear too reddish, and users would complain that Office was shifting the colors somehow. As a result, Office 2010 now defaults to the more neutral Silver color theme, and users should be happier (even if they don't realize why).

Tuning applications to real-world behaviors
Even more important than overt user feedback, however, is the data Redmond collects behind the scenes. Customers who opt in to the Office user experience program submit anonymous data about their usage patterns, allowing Microsoft to tally which actions users execute in each Office application per hour, per day. Armed with this data, Microsoft can figure out how to make the most often executed tasks easier.

For example, it turns out that the most frequently used command after a Paste operation in Word is Undo. While there were fewer Undos in Office 2007 than in previous versions, Office 2010 includes enhanced Paste Preview capabilities, aimed at getting the figures even lower.

Similarly, the most common action after reading an e-mail in Outlook is Delete. If that's what users want, that's what they get: Outlook 2010's Delete button is more prominent on the ribbon.

Perhaps the biggest change in the Office 2010 UI is the elimination of the Office Orb button. Microsoft loved it; users hated it. In place of the Orb, Office 2010 now has a simple File tab. (Imagine that -- a company removing a brand logo from its product because it makes it easier to use!)

Microsoft also streamlined the ribbon. As you can see in the screenshots, Office 2007's ribbon had a lot of boxes and colored tabs around UI elements. Microsoft developers call these "training wheels," and they were designed to help users acclimate to the ribbon interface. In practice, however, they got in the way. For Office 2010, Microsoft has opted for a simpler design that's easier for the eye to navigate.

Office 2010 even offers a reprieve for users who are tired of accidentally launching the wrong program. For the first time, the splash screen of every Office 2010 application includes a Cancel button.

User-driven development
Of course, not every user will be happy with these changes. Nonetheless, developers should take Office 2010 as an example of how to do iterative application development right.

Taken individually, Microsoft's adjustments to the Office 2010 UI might seem trivial. Taken together, however, they represent a concerted effort to improve the experience of Office 2010 in ways that will increase users' efficiency over the lifecycle of the product.

Too many application developers simply imitate other products or design UIs based on "what feels right." Microsoft, on the other hand, backs its UI decision-making with a methodical process that provides clear metrics based on real-world usage patterns.

More important, Microsoft has demonstrated the will to do better. Let this be a lesson to developers everywhere: With an 80 percent share of the office productivity software market, Microsoft could easily become complacent. Instead, each new release of Office strives to improve upon the last, to make its users' work faster, easier, and more enjoyable. Can your software development teams say the same?

This story, "Office 2010: At last, the suite that users built," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Microsoft Office and application development at InfoWorld.com.

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