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A Note on Excel 2007

At this writing, Microsoft is now completing the Beta 2 stage of it's next version of Office, titled "Office 2007".  It's widely touted as the biggest change in the history of Office and, of course, it's influence is heavily felt in the Excel application. From my early look at the Beta 2 Release and reading of blogs by several Microsoft & non-Microsoft developers, there is much to like about Excel 2007 as Microsoft has taken the time to remove many limitations that have frustrated both users and third party developers for years. I note, too, that they've also employed some of the innovations we included in DataSmiths Evolution - for example, Office 2007 features that you'll find already deployed in DataSmiths Evolution include: a) Toolbars that expand with Screen Resolution to provide more single-click tools if your hardware will support it; and b) the Office 2007 "Quick Access Toolbar" is not unlike the personal "My Toolbar" included in this application. However, the most drastic difference that all previous users of Excel will notice is the completely re-designed User Interface (UI) in Office 2007.

Well, since DataSmiths Evolution was built as an alternate UI precisely because we wanted to create a more user-friendly and productive Excel environment, we can understand why Microsoft might take this opportunity to address some of the same issues themselves. However, as users are first introduced to the new UI, they will find that for all the innovation Microsoft has introduced, the process of building a UI always involves a series of compromises to be made.  Using a military analogy, users are the “Generals”, the Toolbars are the "arsenals" for their “weapons” and the usable screen space is their “battlefield”. Now, we Generals need SPACE in our battlefield to maneuver our troops (to develop our data, produce our analyses, render our presentations and communicate same with others, and all of this, part and parcel, is a vital means of understanding our operations, ordering and controlling our objectives, all in order to achieve our missions). And in order to do that productively, we need to be able to SEE our work without having to constantly scroll the screen which adds to our “casualties” (ala the relationship between excessive mouse and keyboard clicks and carpel tunnel syndrome) and greatly detracts from productivity (and especially so in more complex documents) because of: a) the time and clicks it takes to scroll; b) the spatial distraction scrolling causes; and c) because we have to remember what is in other non-visible areas of the document that impacts what we can see.  So in the "battle" for screen space, there is a constant struggle (and need) for balance between the space allocated to our tools, and the remainder left in which to do our work. The end result of this whole design process becomes the UI in which we have to contend to productively accomplish our missions.

I believe it should be a cardinal rule for those who construct user interfaces to have to work with the same screen resolution that most users use because in that way (and only in that way) do they gain the requisite respect for their users experience in making the decision on how to allocate space to tools vs. that left to users as usable screen area - I'm not sure that Microsoft has adhered to such a rule with their new UI. There has been much discussion about the large "Ribbon" (Microsoft's term for the screen component that holds the tools in Office 2007). For background here, I'll refer you (below) to a blog maintained by Jensen Harris, a Lead Program Manager on the Microsoft Office "user experience" team whose "key responsibility is to design and develop the UI framework that people use to interact with all of Office" (since I've got a lot of interest in this area, you may also notice I've made some of the same comments you see here on Jensen's blog). As discussed further at this and related blogs by many interested users and third party developers, there's a fair amount of controversy about some of the directions that Microsoft has taken thus far. My calculations you can see documented at the link below indicate that as presently constituted, Office 2007 will reduce the Rows in Excel that today's "average user" can see by some 13.4% (those with lesser screen resolutions will lose even more compared to those with higher resolutions). That's because the UI components (the "Ribbon", et al) are taking up more space. If you can afford more Screen Resolution (i.e., the additional expense of larger and more capable monitors and/or video cards), this may not be a big deal. Others, however, may find themselves with less efficient control over their "troops" discussed in the military analogy above. At the same time, Microsoft's new UI (as it is currently constructed in Beta 2) provides less built-in control to users and developers to alter their UI as they have been more fully able to in past Office versions. So, as stated at the outset, this whole process is a series of compromises (and consensus is sometimes hard to find).

For DataSmiths Evolution, we've begun the process of evaluating the impact of the new UI on all the tools that we provide. The good news is that almost everything we built in our current version to provide a consistent, enhanced and user-friendly interface for Excel 2000 - 2003 still works in Excel 2007. However (as it currently stands in Beta 2), all custom toolbars (including ours) are relegated to the “Add-Ins” tab of Excel 2007's Ribbon and there's not much in the way of built-in controls that allow users or developers to alter that. It's still workable but there'll no doubt be some changes we'll need to make to optimize our enhancements and adapt to the new environment. What remains is to see how 2007 evolves from Beta 2 to the final released product - perhaps, if they haven't gone too far yet, they'll stop and listen to those users and partners who haven't agreed with their direction and are simultaneously upset with the lack of options and tools they have made available for users to alter their UI in all the ways that make sense (and to contend with unwanted intrusions by the "default" UI). As these issues become more definitive, we may amend these comments here or offer a blog of our own on a strategy for Office 2007 (if we go the latter route, we'll place a prominent link here to direct you to the blog).  As should be obvious, there are many different types of users with many differing needs and varying budgets to bring to bear on the challenges at hand - if Office 2007's first release and it's current "one-size-fits-all" UI doesn't please enough of the market, Microsoft may come to re-study all these issues and try to provide enough backwards-compatibility to encourage more conversions to the new Office platform. At any rate, we'll remain committed to helping our customers marshal their “troops”, to command their “weapons”, to become the best, most effective “generals” possible.

For at least for as long as they keep the site up, you can find Jensen's blog (that I discussed above) at the link below (as well as links to a whole host of other related discussions on Office 2007 and the new UI): - Let's Talk About Customization


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