The new look in Office 12 / Office 2007

Much of the talk about the UI (user interface) has been ill-informed and there’s been something of a knee-jerk reaction against the whole idea. We’ve sat down and spent some hours working with the new interface and think we have a pretty good idea of its benefits and pitfalls.

There’s been a lot of talk about the announcement of the new look interface designed for Office 12. The coverage has ranged from parroting the press release, a knee-jerk reaction that the change must be bad and the opposite reaction must be good – sorry ‘exciting’.

In this issue we’ll talk about the proposed change in detail based on actual use of the pre-beta 1 Office 12 and let you know what we think. We’ve sat down and spent some hours working with the new interface and feel we have a more informed idea of its benefits and pitfalls.

It is always difficult to talk about a software interface if you’ve just read about it or seen a few still images. With Office 12 even seeing a demo can leave you under-whelmed. Having used it for a few hours we’re much more positive about it than we had been just seeing the glitzy demo. So if you read this and other media reports – don’t jump to any conclusions. This new Office look deserves a test drive.

In short, we have quibbles and misgivings, but I think that Microsoft is on the right track and for the right reasons on this occasion. We have serious concerns about the fixed and unyielding nature of the changes that, while not intended to be, come off as patronizing and overbearing.

We hope that this article will interest you in what is coming in 2006 but also get you thinking a little about how you use Office now.

To help you get a better idea of how the new interface works the edition of this issue on our web site will have images and screen shots to illustrate the Office 12 look. The screen shots have been supplied by Microsoft and are not as clear or detailed as we’d like.

And to anticipate the inevitable questions; the release of Office 12 is slated for the second half of 2006 and so there’s no indication of what packages will be available, pricing, upgrade options, free upgrades for recent purchasers (‘technology guarantee’). Certainly there will be a lot more to Office 12 than just the UI change. We have some peeks into some of the other new features at the end of this article and there’ll be more that we can’t talk about yet.

Why another change?

You’ve probably heard talk about ‘new’ interfaces in the past but all here’s really been is a change of look. Changing buttons from flat to a 3D effect is not a new interface. For Office 12 we really are seeing a new way of getting to commands and features.

The user interface doesn’t have an overall name – it’s usually called the “Office 12 UI” or just the ‘new UI’ where UI stands for User Interface.

To understand why Office changes its look and why there’s such a big change in the next Office you need to look back in time …

The first software developed with graphical interfaces had menus, but for some purposes that became clumsy and so the idea of a toolbar was born. Toolbars provided quick access to some features leaving the menus to cover the less common and complex options.

Toolbars have grown and grown over the years – from just two in Word 1 for Windows to over 30 in Word 2003. Add to that taskbars and more menu options than anyone likes to think about.

The problem for Microsoft has been how to give people easy access to features in a limited amount of screen space. It’s not just a question of reducing mouse clicks – features have to be obvious so that people can find what they need, even when they don’t really know what they want. And we’ve all gone ‘menu mining’, pulling down each menu to find the choice we need.

According to Microsoft, the majority of the feature requests they get for Office are for things already in the program. That would seem to indicate that people aren’t exploring the menus, using help, reading books or even (gasp) reading excellent free newsletters. They are taking Office at face value – if a feature or command is not obvious in front of their eyes then it isn’t used.

On the other hand there’s limited screen space and you can’t fill the display with menus and toolbars – most of the window should be devoted to your document, worksheet or presentation.

Microsoft explains that over the years they have tried various strategies to address this problem – for the most part this development has involved tweaks to the basic menu and toolbar combination, with the notable addition of the Task Panes in relatively recent times.

Office has an extreme version of a common problem – many commands and features – not enough screen space. The result has been that the Office team try new and non-standard approaches to fit their needs.

So what’s happened now?

The company realized that something radical had to be done, not only to make existing features more accessible but also to enable new and improved features to be utilized. They also know that Office 12’s biggest rivals are Office 2003 and earlier versions of their product – Office 12 has to offer significant and obvious benefits to get people to hand over their money.

The result will be a major change in the way we work with Word, Excel, Powerpoint and, in some cases, Outlook – should you choose to get Office 12.

What’s the new look?

Office 12 will combine the menus and toolbars into a single interface. Gone is the idea of toolbars being abbreviated versions of what you get on menus.

Instead the commonly used options are on a section of the screen with the more detailed dialog boxes (that you used to get from the menus) now available from options in the same interface. There’s a lot more pull-down menus and controls on what you might think of as an expanded toolbar.

Combined with that are the vastly improved concept of galleries – visual representations of formatting options and live previews about which we’ll talk more about later and are bound to be highlights of Office 12 demos in 2006.

You might think from looking at still images that the new user interface just a larger toolbar but it’s more than that.

Nothing is fixed – yet …

Before we go any further, please keep this in mind. Office 12 is still very much in development – while the broad details of the interface are decided, there are still many details to be finalized. Even the names of features have not been decided and may change. We’re telling you the way it works now but that will certainly change before Office 12 goes on sale.

We’ve used versions of it before the semi-public ‘Beta 1’ that is due for limited distribution before the end of the year. This will be followed by beta 2 and the public release in the second half of 2006. There’s a long way to go yet.

As a result things might seem less stable and certain than you are used to – that’s not a sign of Microsoft’s ineptitude, you’re just seeing more of a process that has traditionally been hidden from the public.

The Elements

The new interface is a combination of several elements. Looking at top left there is:

Office 12 UI with callouts image from The new look in Office 12 / Office 2007 at

The only remaining normal menu is similar to the existing File menu and retains that short title for familiarity.

Under that menu there are familiar options, New, Open, Save, Save As, Print etc but the ‘fly out’ menus have changed a lot. They are now enclosed in a rectangle to the right of menu itself. When you first open the File menu this extra space is used by the, greatly expanded, Most Recently Used (MRU) file list (about time).

Quick Something Toolbar

This is a customizable set of small icons that are intended to let you get fast access to the commands you want. You can add items to this Toolbar