Word 2004: Still can’t open the ‘Preferences’ dialog when no document is open

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 7th, 2004 • 3:54 am

This is not a bug, and it’s not new in Word 2004. It’s a problem that has plagued all recent versions of Word for Mac OS X and is a profound design flaw.

If you are in Word X or Word 2004, and have no document window open, then the “Preferences…” command in the application menu is greyed out, which means that you cannot access the “Preferences” dialog box.

How come? The reason is simple. Microsoft’s software design skills are so poor that they are unable to separate document-specific settings from application-wide settings in their user interface. Worse still, they are unable to properly separate document-specific settings from template-specific settings (which apply to all documents based on the corresponding template).

In other words, there are three levels of customization in Word, and the interface through which these three levels of customization can be accessed is totally confusing. The “Preferences” dialog should only contain application-wide settings that can be changed regardless of whether a document is currently open in Word or not. That’s precisely why the “Preferences…” command is in the application menu.

Word’s “Preferences…” command is in the application menu, but it cannot be used unless a document window is open in Word — because it contains settings that are actually document-specific or template-specific rather than being application-wide. For example, in the “View” section of the “Preferences” dialog, if you go to the “Nonprinting characters” and check the “Tab characters” setting, the tab characters will become visible… in the current document only. In other words, even though this setting is in the application-wide “Preferences” dialog box, it’s a document-specific setting.

Is there any way to tell, in the “Preferences” dialog box, which settings are application-wide and which are document-specific? Of course not. This is Microsoft we are talking about.

The real shame is that Microsoft is fully aware of this flaw, and has been aware of it for several years. Yet obviously they have decided that it’s not a priority to fix it, that adding fancy new features that no one will use is more important. This is absolutely scandalous. We are talking about Interface 101 stuff here. The application menu is for application-wide commands and settings. Period.

Is it any wonder that Word users are systematically confused and frustrated by the user interface of the program? If, after several years, even the simple things cannot be made to work as expected, I don’t see what the user can do other than bang his head against his desktop.

I am sure Microsoft has a highly scientific user survey somewhere that says that this is not important. Well, I am sorry, but it is, and I have yet to hear anyone argue convincingly that it really isn’t.

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