Microsoft Updates PowerPoint, Excel Online With Tell Me Command Search

Making the jump from Word Online, Tell Me now helps Excel and PowerPoint Online users find what they need using plain language.

Cortana and Bing aren't the only products to benefit from Microsoft's efforts to advance natural language processing.

For months, users of the Redmond, Wash.-based tech titan's Word Online browser-based app have been able to dive into its advanced functionality without digging through menus. Tell Me, a search box that appears in the center of the Office ribbon, allows users to seek out features and options by typing out the intended result with plain language queries.

Now, that functionality has been extended to Excel Online and PowerPoint Online, the company announced.

"One of the key ways Tell Me saves you time is by allowing you to use intuitive language to find the commands you need," Christian Braun, an Office Shared Experience program manager at Microsoft, said in a statement. "Whether you type 'insert picture,' 'new image,' 'add pic,' or just 'pic,' Tell Me has your back and will display the Insert Picture command."

Tell Me bridges the gap between intention and skill. "We all know the feeling when we want to do something in, say, Word, but can't quite remember how to do it," said Braun. "You tell it what you want to do and it shows you the commands you need."

Employing a technique called "word-wheeling," Tell Me can also generate results while users type. "With every keystroke, the results are modified and refined," said Braun.

Other user-friendly features are a list of recently used commands and direct access to Office Help. Users can snap the cursor to Tell Me using the CTRL + ' (apostrophe) keyboard shortcut.

Tell Me also surfaces in-context actions that typically follow or enhance a desired command.

"For example, if your cursor is in a paragraph of text and you type 'insert row' into the Tell Me box, the results shown will include 'Insert Above' and 'Insert Below'; however, these results are grayed out, i.e. they are not clickable, because they are table-related commands," explained Braun. "In order to use them, simply move your cursor into a table and issue the same query again."

Tell Me is one example of the human-centric spin that Microsoft has been putting on user experiences of late.

Last year, the company rolled out natural language support for its Bing search engine. It's a subtle but powerful change that allows users to get answers to their questions without juggling keywords. Windows 8.1 Smart Search was recently upgraded to provide similar functionality to users searching for files, content and OS settings.

In April, Microsoft wowed attendees during a demonstration of Cortana at Build 2014. Cortana is the company's voice-enabled, Bing-powered digital assistant on Windows Phone 8.1. The technology, which can also handle text input, adeptly answered questions, set reminders and completed tasks following exposure to conversational, plain-spoken English.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...