Give the Users What They Want

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2004-11-11

Give the Users What They Want

Each recent release of Microsoft Office seems to have had a theme. Office XP was about presenting users with features they didnt know existed and providing an overall higher level of help and out-of-the-box support. It was the release of the Task Pane.

Much of that seemed to disappear or be muted in Office 2003, which spotlighted improvements to Outlook, SharePoint, XML and Tablet PC support. The overall theme was improved e-mail productivity, including the new anti-spam technology.

As Microsoft begins to provide its most trusted partners with the skinny on Office 12, Id like to suggest a theme that probably isnt in the plan, but should be. Its a simple suggestion that has to happen sooner or later: Get rid of Office as we know it.

Specifically, I want Microsoft to put Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio and Access out of our misery and create something more closely aligned with what users actually do each day, rather than all the things they might possibly do. I want this new application to feature a single user interface that morphs based on what the user is doing at the moment.

In this application, the user would be free to mix different types of data, allowing a single page to include a spreadsheet, information from a database, text and graphics, all created from within the document itself.

The goal would be to accomplish something I dont believe personal computers have done lately: Increase worker productivity and happiness. I know the productivity stuff makes sense to most people—more work in less time. The happiness part relates to how much in control of the computer the user feels. Is the computer working for her or vice versa?

Microsoft Office has never felt like a really good tool to me. I cant exactly describe this, but have you ever had a tool that just felt "right" in your hand? Have you ever felt this way about Microsoft Office? Neither have I.

Next Page: Just make it work.

Just Make It Work

Yes, I still see a place for the current stand-alone Office applications. But these islands of computing should be reserved for what we used to call "power users" and not inflicted upon the vast majority of workers who never use the vast majority of Office features.

I know what Microsoft is going to say: Most people use 80 percent of the same features all the time, but the other 20 percent (or whatever) is highly individualized making it impossible just to shed a bunch of features from the core product and calling it a day.

This is where I believe that famed Microsoft ingenuity comes into play: Just make it work. My preference is to lop off features that users really could do without and use a setup wizard to enable the others either at installation or on demand.

This new Office-less Office also needs more helpful proofing tools and an easy way for companies to create style guides and templates so everyones documents look the same (or have a good reason for breaking format). You can do this today, but its not easy.

Id also like to see an improved grammar checker (regular readers understand why) and more desktop publishing capabilities, similar to what Microsoft Publisher does today. I am not sure Publisher should go away, but there needs to be a tighter linkage between it and whatever Office 12 turns out to be.

Office 12 needs to focus on workgroup productivity, perhaps bringing back the personal Web server so users can have a lightweight copy of Sharepoint server on their machines to support shared documents and workspaces. Maybe Microsoft can turn its investment in Groove Networks into something interesting.

If Microsoft expects many Office users to upgrade to Office 12, its going to have to do better than its last two releases. Customers seem to have decided that the Office they already own is just fine and see no reason to upgrade.

Analysts suggest that the greatest competition to Microsofts updated software remains older versions of Office. Click here to read more.

Overcoming this requires Microsoft to do more than add ever more arcane features, mostly aimed at big corporate customers and programmers. Redmond needs to do something that makes real users demand Office 12 because it makes their lives better and easier.

To accomplish that, Microsoft needs to break the Office mold and start with something fresh.

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