Rick Schaut on styles and Word 2004

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 14th, 2004 • 6:41 am

Microsoft blogger and MacBU developer Rick Schaut has a new blog entry on styles in Microsoft Word for Mac.

It’s an interesting read, especially for people who already use (or try to use) styles in Word X. If you’ve never used styles, then you’ll be glad to know that, according to Schaut, “you can’t use Word without using paragraph styles“. Considering that using styles is still so painful in Word X (I reserve my final judgement on Word 2004 for when I get the software), it’s a somewhat offensive statement, which makes light of the fact that the immense majority of Word users do not use styles.

If you’ve never used styles, it’s probably in part because Word’s interface for character and paragraph formatting is so confusing. Just the terminology used in Word is enough to give a headache to the most well-meaning user. What’s the difference between Format, Font, and Style? And then, why is the “Set language” command in the “Tools” menu when the language setting for a range of words is actually considered part of its formatting, and can be added to a style definition?

Anyway… The blog entry does include some criticism of the current Word interface. (“In Word X (or 98 or 2001), you change the style’s alignment by clicking on the “Format” dropdown in the New/Modify Style dialog box, selecting “Paragraph…” in the list, selecting “Justified” in the Alignment dropdown, and clicking “OK” in the “Format Paragraph” dialog box. Yuk. You have to go three dialogs deep just to change a paragraph style’s alignment.“) But just when you think that Microsoft has finally seen the light when it comes to making styles more intuitive and user-friendly, now comes this:

It’s important to understand that style properties are applied as differences relative to the style below it in the based-on chain. To see why, try this in Word: select “Style…” from the Format menu, and click “Heading 1” in the list of style names. Note that the description says that the font is bold. Now, select “Normal” in the list of style names, click the “Modify…” button and change the font to bold (in Word X, select “Character…” from the “Format” dropdown, etc.). Click “OK” in the New/Modify Style dialog box to get back to the Style dialog box, select “Heading 1” in the list of style names. Note that the description now says that the font is “Not Bold.”

This may seem like somewhat strange behavior in that “Bold” becomes “Not Bold” without a direct change to the “Heading 1” style, but it makes sense if we think of styles as marking structure rather than formatting. For example, it’s rather common to use italics for emphasis, particularly within quotes. The problem, however, is that the formatting for emphasis depends on context. In a paragraph where the underlying formatting is already italics, emphasis is created by turning italics off. By storing style properties as differences (and applying them as differences), then a character style that signifies emphasis can do the Right Thing relative to the formatting of the underlying style of the paragraph. And, in fact, Word has a built-in character style named “Emphasis” that does exactly what I’ve described. Word also has a built-in character style, called “Strong” that does the same thing for bold.

In other words, Word is doing things behind your back without asking for your permission (here, it changes the style definition of “Heading 1” even though you never asked it to do so), and you’re supposed to feel grateful for it.

Yes, there is one particular context in which such a behaviour does make sense, and it is with the use of emphasis for certain words in a paragraph of text that is already in italics. If italics is normally used for emphasis, obviously emphasis in a text that’s already in italics won’t work. You can’t have “double italics”. (Actually, you can by using a PostScript font that’s already an italics font and then applying Word’s manual italics formatting to it, but that’s another story…) So typographic convention (in English and French, at least) recommends that you put emphasized words in a text that’s already in italics in roman characters.

And indeed, Word does use roman when you apply a style with italics to text that’s already in italics. But that’s a special case. I don’t think that there is any typographic convention in English or in French that recommends that, if the body of your text is in bold, then the headings should be in roman. And I fail to see how this relates in any way to the use of styles “as marking structure rather than formatting“. What if I “mark” my headings by using a style that puts them in a different font altogether? Why do I need Word to fiddle with the bold setting behind my back? This is pure non-sense. (As well, the use of manual bold and italics formatting is a constant source of headaches for graphic designers, who have to place Word documents into their InDesign or QuarkXPress documents. I am sure that they’ll be glad to hear that Microsoft continues to use manual italics and bold as part of their style mechanisms and continues to encourage users to use manual formatting by featuring the big “B” and “I” buttons prominently in their toolbars.)

So why is Microsoft forcing this behaviour on its users here? Because it’s Microsoft, of course… I am sure that they have some kind of user survey that shows that the majority of Word users want this behaviour. But then, the majority of Word users still use double or triple tabs to align things vertically in their documents. So I am not sure the opinion of the majority of Word users is that interesting in this situation.

The bottom-line here is that Microsoft developers are so caught up in their own twisted logic that they are unable to see the most simple facts, which are that styles in Word are still incredibly complicated to use (the improvements mentioned by Rick Schaut later on in his blog entry don’t sound that ground-breaking to me, and I doubt that they’ll make much difference for users who don’t already use styles) and the Word interface for text formatting is still incredibly confusing and frustrating. Rick’s blog entry is probably impossible to understand for someone who doesn’t already use styles.

Oh well. Not much new here then.

4 Responses to “Rick Schaut on styles and Word 2004”

  1. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre: On Windows, Word 2003 (the latest version) is no doubt far worse. The interface alone is mind-boggling. (I don’t want to know what is going on under the hood.) The style task pane, a side frame (to use terminology from web pages) that opens into the current document’s window, shows every style and every manual style override that is present in the document. I guess it is considered helpful to show all of these as possible options, but it makes it difficult to find the orthodox style that you want to apply. To edit one of the styles, one has to hover the mouse pointer over an arrow icon to the right of the style listed in the pane so as to obtain a popup menu, where a modify… entry exists. There is no sign that this pop-up exists without hovering. Microsoft’s interfaces often require this kind of poking around to display controls. (I am really getting tired of “modern” interface elements that require precision use of the mouse to reveal functionality.)

    My guess is that Microsoft’s user polls indicate that styles are scary or something like that, so it is better to hide the fact that styles can be used. The functionality is there, but it cannot be efficiently used.

    Again, I refer to Microsoft Word 3 on the Macintosh, which had an extremely well thought out mechanism to use and modify a set of global hierarchical styles. The interface used in Word 3 was used until Word 5.2. When Word 6 was released (a.k.a. WinWord for the Macintosh) the style interface was changed to follow exactly the one in place on the Windows side. As far as I can tell, _this_ interface stayed the same all the way through Word 2000; Word XP (2002) released the silly task panes. These do not exist in Word v.X, which introduced a formatting palette that differs significantly from the task pane in design and behavior. I have no idea why Microsoft made these interface changes; they had a perfect one in place in 1986 or 1987 (Word 3 on the Macintosh).

    I think that it is probable that Microsoft is designing its apps for the middle of its user base, which largely uses the apps for simple office tasks. However, owing to the fact that it has largely forced everybody else out of the market, there is no alternative word processor for the serious user that works with long documents and is willing to learn how to use an application’s advanced features. Now, FrameMaker on the Macintosh was an application that had an extremely well thought out set of features and an efficient user interface; reviews often panned FrameMaker’s interface as being “stodgy” or “unattractive”. These reviews contributed to the demise of FrameMaker on the Macintosh.

    I think that professional users were better off in the days when computers were pretty expensive and applications were geared to users who were willing to read long manuals and expend significant effort. Now we are faced with companies that tune the only apps that are available to the vast number of users who are writing, for instance, single page memos.

    (Although I really like Mellel, as I have posted here before, I will be sticking with FrameMaker for the duration. One advantage of using an app that has been discontinuted is that its developer will never release a new version that screws everything up. Adobe is currently quite good at doing things like that.

    The only reason I am not running Word 5.2a as a good alternative, by the way, is that it lacks zooming or magnification of the writing window; with today’s large monitors, this is a problem. I think that Word 5.2a was optimized for a 640×480 or perhaps even the 540 x 360 (or whatever it was) monitor that the original Macintosh and Macintosh SE had.)

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    This site now has a screen shot of the “new” interface for styles in Word 2004. Looks like more of the same to me. They are still using that horrible, useless WYSIWYG styles list, and there still appears to be no distinction between paragraph styles and character styles (apart from that paragraph mark symbol). When will Microsoft finally understand that we need two separate “Current Style” fields, one for the paragraph style and one for the character style? Geez.

    Warren, I admire you for sticking with FrameMaker. I really couldn’t work with a Classic application anymore. I agree with you on the whole, but there still is a market for “pro” users. InDesign and other such products are not designed for single page documents.

  3. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre, as you know the “Pro” market served primarily by Adobe’s CS apps is one of the core constituencies that maintains the Macintosh platform as a viable option for users. I am glad that Adobe maintains this market, but its support for the Macintosh (on which its business was created) is questionable. The FrameMaker/Mac community is pissed with Adobe.

    I have a license for the CS suite, and on the whole it is excellent. Unfortunately, InDesign is not capable at this point of replacing FrameMaker, and Adobe has not provided a migration path for its Mac FrameMaker users. I wrote a grant proposal using InDesign in January, and although I got the work done (and it really _looks_ great, the typography and figure layout is fabulous) I had to work around the absence of a number of simple features that are not central in the page layout area. The document infrastructure provided by InDesign is inferior to that of FrameMaker and even Word v.X. It is not possible InDesign to prepare styles with autonumbering features nor is it possible to do a round-trip RTF (or tagged text) export and reimport with in-line graphics, such as mathematical equations from MathType or from LaTeX Equation editor. A round-trip of this type is required to process endnote citations using EndNote or Bookends, both of which employ an intermediate file format for scanning and replacement of bibliographic marker information. Now, there is no reason why Adobe could not provide the appropriate facilities using InDesign’s plug-in interface; it provides some limited PageMaker migration facilities using this method. (But the PageMaker plug-in package’s numbered and bulleted lists are very primitive, and the FrameMaker community is not impressed with it).

    The Adobe CS interface on the whole is very nice, you have to admit. But why didn’t Adobe employ the cool spring-loaded palette setup (as provided in InDesign CS) in its other apps, such as Illustrator CS? Go figure.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Warren, I wasn’t mentioning InDesign as a replacement for FrameMaker, just as an example of a pro-level application that obviously has a market. I fully agree with you regarding the lack of “smart document” features in InDesign. It’s very frustrating, and prevents it from being the long-document authoring tool that we crave so much.

    As for the spring-loaded palettes, they are there in Photoshop too. Their absence in Illustrator is an illustration that the “CS” thing is not much more than a paint-job for some of the applications in the suite. Only big bad software developers such as Adobe or Microsoft can get away with such inconsistencies and still get 4-star so-called reviews in magazines.

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