Word X: Trying to use styles

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 13th, 2003 • 6:46 pm

The MVPs I have spoken to have always insisted that Word is more stable, reliable, and efficient when you use style-based formatting rather than what they call “manual formatting”, which is what you do when you just click on the “B” button to turn the selection INTO bold characters or the ruler to add tabs to your paragraph formatting.

This is fine, I say, but then Microsoft has a lot of work to do to encourage the average user to adopt styles rather than manual formatting.

Right now, the Word interface is almost the exact opposite of what would be needed to encourage people to use styles. Buttons for manual formatting are everywhere. The default keyboard shortcuts for common things such as the “bold” and “italics” commands (cmd-B and cmd-I) are using manual formatting. Creating or editing styles involves all kinds of non-intuitive dialog boxes. Accessing styles is done, by default, through an ugly “WYSIWIG” menu that is not even in alphabetical order. Customizing styles to make them more accessible requires even more work with non-intuitive dialog boxes.Etc. Etc.

Even manual formatting is not intuitive enough for many people, which is why so many secretaries still use multiple tabs to create table-like layouts that break as soon as you change a word in them or change the font size.

The bottom-line is that, until the Word interface is completely revamped to make styles easier to use than manual formatting, nothing will change, Word will remain unreliable, documents will become corrupted, and users worldwide will continue to be utterly annoyed and frustrated.

But even if, by some kind of miracle, Microsoft was suddenly able to design an intuitive interface for styles, there would still be fundamental architectural issues preventing people from using styles.

For example, I try to use character styles in lieu of manual formatting as much as I can when formatting words or sentences inside a single paragraph. But character styles suffer from the very basic flaw that they are not combinable. If you have styles for italics and bold and you want to apply both italics and bold to a word, you need to create another style for “bold and italics”. You don’t need to do this with manual formatting. Applying a character style to a selection of text, on the other hand, erases its existing character formatting. Each time you want to combine things, you need to create a new, “combined” character style.

This is the kind of stuff that makes me think that we are at a stand-still when it comes to word-processor software design. And it’s not because we have the best possible design. It’s because existing software developers are unable to come up with a radically new design.

Sometimes I wish I had the money and resources to create a new word processor from scratch. (My wife, who hears me curse Microsoft pretty much every day — and does her own fair bit of cursing — keeps telling me: “Can’t you invent something better?” I wish…)

It’s discouraging.

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