Microsoft Word and Smarter Than

by Marc Hedlund

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In Rick Schaut's blog entry, "Adumbrating in Word," he very nicely describes the core problem I have with Microsoft Word. Rick writes:

Nearly everything we’ve done with Word, and nearly everything we continue to do with Word, is designed to relieve the user of having to think about the mechanics of writing, thereby allowing her to focus on the content. Don’t want to worry about common spelling errors? Let Word do it. Don’t want to have to type in long paragraphs of boilerplate text? Let Word do it. Don’t want to worry about line breaks and page breaks? Let Word do it. Want to have successive side-by-side paragraphs align at the top with each other yet not have to figure out how much vertical space to add beneath the shorter paragraph? Drop in a table, and let Word do it. Don’t want to bother with counting spaces in order to center a title? Let Word do it.

Now astute denizens of the Web might be quick to point out Adam Engst’s discussion of the hypothetical WriteRight, in which he points out that there is no good word processor for professional writers. And, I should add, Adam is absolutely correct on that score. There is no word processor, including Word, that’s perfectly suitable for professional writers.

So, Rick, if Word’s supposed to be a writing tool, why do professional writers curse it so much? Well, professional writers represent only a small portion of the overall market for word processors. The majority of people who use Word have a primary job function that includes having to do some writing, yet where writing isn’t the core of their work.

The needs of most Word users aren’t the same as the needs of professional writers.

That distinction is the problem. Right after I got out of college, I worked for a while as a paralegal -- a job which involves an inordinate amount of copying. I was, in Rick's usage, for a few months at least, a professional copy-maker. I worked in a corporate law firm, one with a very nice, expensive, top-of-the line copier. It had every button and gizmo and attachment they could possibly think to add to it, and it sang along faster than any copier I'd seen.

And I hated it.

This copier was convinced -- absolutely certain -- that it was smarter than I. It knew perfectly well what I wanted, and it would get that done for me right quick in a hurry. You see, hundreds of engineers had worked for years to make it the smartest copier on the face of the earth, so that I, the professional copy-maker, could sit back and relax. My job was simply to feed it documents to be copied and occasionally to reload it with ten-foot-high stacks of blank paper, and stay out it its way. It would beep at me when my job was done.

Of course, it wasn't really so smart, after all -- I'm sure you saw that coming, since you, too, are smarter than any copier yet invented. When the copier noticed I had fed it double-sided originals, it was absolutely certain that I wanted double-sided copies -- I had asked for copies, right? (Never mind that the court mandated single-sided filings, and that the fax only sent single-sided pages.) When the second page of a 250-page document went through the feeder with the third page stuck to it, it was positive I wanted to wait ten minutes for the copier to feed the remaining 247 pages back into their original order. (Never mind that I could do the same correction in a few seconds -- it overrode the cancel button to make sure it got to do it for me. It was Shlemiel the copier.)

I'm sure someone from Microsoft will read this and think, "Yes, Marc, for 250-page documents, this copier got it wrong -- but for the average user, it was the right default." And that's just what I hate about Word. It assumes that it knows what the average user wants, and it gives the average user just that, good and hard.

I am not (as is probably obvious) a professional writer. I rarely use Word -- in fact, I go out of my way to avoid it. While I think many of the ideas in Adam Engst's WriteRight proposal are fantastic, for the most part I have no need for them. But I use technology every day, and I pay a lot of attention when I see people -- "average" people as well as those above and below the average -- using and being frustrated by technology. Technologies that always frustrate people are those that assume wrongly what the user wants. Worse still are those that repeatedly make erroneous assumptions, and masterfully obscure corrective actions or settings. Microsoft Word is the Lord High Pooh-Bah of this approach -- wherever Rick says, "Let Word do it," what he really means is, "Word will do it for you, whether you like it or not." It's definitely true that Word has, over the years, added settings to turn off all the ways it takes what you type and inserts instead what it thinks you meant to type -- and, if you are a "professional writer," you've no doubt found them all by now, and found them again in their new location with each new upgrade. If you are not a professional writer -- if you, as Rick says, "have a primary job function that includes having to do some writing," you probably haven't. Instead, you probably get mad every time you open Microsoft Word.

There is no difference between the needs of the average user and the professional writer when it comes to sitting in front of a computer to get a task done -- both want the computer to help and stay out of the way. Word asserts, 70% of all users want a bulleted list right here! or an URL with a blue underline right here! -- and annoys the hell out of 30% of all users. Worse, you will inevitably move from the 70% group to the 30% group several times in each document.

Microsoft hires very smart engineers -- I would say the smartest in the business. When they see that some number of their users have some writing problem they believe a computer could be trained to solve, they do a better job than anyone at writing the code to solve that problem. They talk all the time about "knowledge workers" and their needs. What the Word team lacks, in my view, is an awareness that, when a user is trying to get his or her own work done, the user is always smarter than the technology. Assuming that smart people aren't their market is the surest way to produce a bad word processor, which is exactly what I think they've done.


2004-08-30 18:06:15
Read this book
You really need to read this:

The Inmates are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper
2004-08-31 11:45:47
Microsoft Hegemony
Microsoft Word is expressly designed to maintain one of MSFT's two monopolies, namely office apps and operating systems the only two areas in which they appear able to make a profit (and obscene ones at that).

If there was any thought for customer satisfaction then at least Wordpad and Explorer would have a spellchecker. But they don't, because it would damage Word's hegemony.

If Word wasn't trying to be everything to everyone (to crush any kind of competition) then they wouldn't need the collapsable menus in order to hide the 90% of options you neither need nor want.

MSFT hires smart engineers, but they hire smart lawyers and management too, and they know exactly how to illegally milk a government approved monopoly.

If you want to see innovation and responsiveness to customers in office apps again then support OpenOffice's OASIS-backed XML document formats.

2004-08-31 15:50:44
Read this book
Yes, it's a good book. For this particular topic, I think Donald Norman and discussion of affordances is more worthwhile -- Cooper has a good problem statement but Norman has good solution exemplars.

Thanks for the comment.


2004-09-01 08:56:12
Three Blind Mice
The smartest engineers in the world who work behind closed doors can't adequately meet the needs of their users. They need to get out of the office and sit beside Aunt Betty while she curses word because she can't make her Christmas letter look like she wants it. Real requirements can lead to real solutions