Word 2004: Problems with list of styles in Formatting Palette

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 2nd, 2004 • 6:39 am

Word 2004 has a new area in the Formatting Palette that’s supposed to make styles easier to manage and use. Of course, Microsoft had to come up with a new, non-standard design for the controls in that area. And of course, there are all kinds of problems with it that are immediately obvious:

Styles area in Formatting Palette

First of all, even if you turn off the option to display styles in WYSIWYG in the Preferences (“WYSIWYG font and style menus“, under “General“), Word still displays the styles in WYSIWYG in the Formatting Palette.

In fact, the only way to see a list of styles that’s not in WYSIWYG (which takes up far too much room and prevents you from seeing more than a handful of styles at the same time) is to switch the option to list only the “Available styles” (whatever that means) to “All styles” — but then of course the list includes all kinds of styles that you’ll probably never want to use, so it’s just as difficult to browse the list in order to locate the style you are looking for.

To make matter worse, if you have a multi-button mouse with a scrolling wheel, you’ll be delighted to note that the scrolling wheel doesn’t work for that list of styles, even though it has a scroll bar on the right-hand side. Nice. Of course, it’s probably because Microsoft decided to use custom-made, non-standard controls for this area.

As you can see from the screen shot, it’s totally unclear what exactly this list of styles is. Is it a list? a series of buttons? a menu? Your guess is as good as mine… As it turns out, each line is some kind of button which applies the style to the current selection when you click on it, but the right-hand side, where there is a paragraph mark icon (to indicate a paragraph style, as opposed to a character style), behaves differently. When you hover over a style in this list, the paragraph mark is replaced by a button with a down-pointing arrow. If you click on that button, instead of applying the style, you get a pop-up menu with a few options, including the option to update the style based on the selection.

And that’s another problem. Yes, this option to update the style based on the selection is useful (it is called “Redefine style based on selection” or “Redefine style” elsewhere in the interface), but it’s not where it should be! Or rather, it should be there, but it should also be in the pop-up menu that you get when clicking on the right-hand side of the “Current style of selected text” field. Why? Well, because if you have 20 styles in your document, and your current selection is a paragraph that’s already in Style #19, but with a few manual changes that you want to incorporate into the definition of Style #19, you don’t want to have to scroll down the list of styles in the Formatting Palette to get to Style #19 so that you can select the “Update to Match Selection” command in the pop-up menu! Style #19 is already displayed in the “Current style” field since it’s what is currently selected, so why isn’t the “Update to Match Selection” command in the pop-up menu of that field?

This shortcoming means that it’s unlikely that users will become more familiar with using styles and updating them as needed than they did in previous versions of Word. In other words, it defeats the purpose of this new Styles area in the Formatting Palette in the first place. I personally will continue to use my keyboard shortcut for “Redefine style from selection” instead — but that’s because I already know about styles and already use them all the time.

It really is painful to see that Microsoft developers are 1) unable to come up with interface improvements that use standard controls that Mac users are familiar with; 2) even with their own, proprietary controls, unable to provide the functionality that is required to actually make the controls useful (even though they are non-standard). It’s just… painful.

I should also note that, even though it looks like one, the first item in the list, “Clear Formatting”, is not a style, but a button for a command. And it’s not a very useful button, because it removes all formatting: paragraph style formatting, character style formatting, and manual formatting — when we actually need separate buttons for each.

And you’ll be also glad to know that the “Current style” field is unable to display both the current paragraph style and the current character style (if there is one) at the same time. How does Microsoft expect Word users to be encouraged to use character styles instead of manual formatting when it is not even able to provide them with a clear distinction between paragraph styles and character styles? These are two different types of styles, and users need to be able to see both of them at the same time. Right now, if you have a word that is in the “Emphasis” character style in a paragraph that is in the “Heading 3” paragraph style, and if you put your cursor somewhere in that word, the “Current style” field only says “Emphasis”. You have absolutely no indication of what the current paragraph style is.

You might ask: Why are character styles so important? What’s wrong with manual formatting (i.e. the use of things like the Bold, Italics, and Underline buttons that are in the “Font” area of the Formatting Palette)? Well, if you have ever worked with a graphic designer who needs to import your Word files in a program like InDesign, you should ask him what he thinks of manual formatting in Word. As well, the use of manual formatting is strongly discouraged by Word MVPs, because it appears that it can be a source of further trouble, such as document corruption, etc.

I personally use character styles all the time, and almost never manual formatting. And when a document that I receive has manual formatting (and most of them have lots of it), depending on how long it is and how much work it requires, I usually strip it of its manual formatting and apply my styles instead. So I don’t need any encouragement. But most Word users in general do need a lot of encouragement when it comes to avoiding manual formatting, and, once again, Microsoft has failed to improve Word in a way that will really encourage them to do so.

2 Responses to “Word 2004: Problems with list of styles in Formatting Palette”

  1. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre, you know that styles are scary, and MS would like you to quit using them. :-) I haven’t got my copy of Office 2004 yet, but what you describe sure looks like the Word 2003 (Windows XP version) formatting/styles task pane. I also enjoy the “hovering” that you have to do in order to obtain the button that allows you to modify the style.

    What I’ve done under Word v.X and Word 2003 (Windows) is to build my own formatting palette. You can use the Customize… menuchoice to make buttons for all of your standard styles. You can even map a keystroke (I use FrameMaker’s Cmd-M) to open up the Style dialog box (which I’ll bet still exists even though MS is foisting its wacky style task pane on us in the 2004 version). The Style dialog box is the right way to get at the styles, to make new ones and to modify old ones. It is ambiguous how one makes character styles using this dialog box, but it can be done. Of course, why one should have to build his own interface to work around badly designed interfaces that apparently have high “opportunity cost” is beyond me.

    I have no idea why MS is foisting new interfaces on existing code–is it just to confuse its experienced users? There’s just now way that an _inexperienced_ user can easily use the new taskpane.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Warren, if you want to see crazy, try opening some of the documents I receive with manual formatting all over the place. That is scary (when it’s not downright infuriating)! :)

    I know what you mean, though… Word is a totally schizophrenic product. On the one hand, it has tons of automatic features that are supposed to make life easier for you and make documents more reliable and usable; on the other hand, it does everything in its power to discouraging you from using these features (crashes, bugs, awful interface, etc.).

    I haven’t used Word XP much, but the Styles thing does look like it’s fairly similar. I definitely will not use it, and will continue to rely on my customization, just like you. I am not sure I want to include the Styles dialog in my customization, though. What an awful beast it is.

    I just cannot believe that Microsoft seems unable to look beyond their own products and draw at least a little bit of inspiration from other similar products. What’s so hard about providing a resizable Styles palette that simply has a plain-text list of all styles in use in the document, along with the keyboard shorcuts where available? The current style would be highlighted in that list, and people would be able to ctrl-click on the style in the list to access features like the style definition, redefine style, etc.

    Of course there would be one such palette for character style, and another, separate one for paragraph styles. Jeez. What’s so hard about coming up with such a thing?

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