Word 2004: How people in the real world align text vertically in tables

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
September 11th, 2004 • 4:37 am

In this blog, I frequently mention that I have to work with existing Word documents created by other people. This gives me a lot of good examples of how people in the real world use Word and how far we are from getting a critical mass of Word users to use Word’s features properly.

Here’s a prime example of how people align text vertically in table cells in Word in the real world:

Vertical alignment in table cells

(Actual table information changed to protect the guilty :).)

Notice the multiple paragraph marks used by this person to create space above the actual contents of the cells so that the text looks more or less centered vertically in the cells. Of course, the end result is far from satisfactory, with text that’s not really properly centered anyway.

And you know what would happen if I ventured to try and change the font size of the text in the table or otherwise edit its contents…

Clearly, the person who created this table has no idea that, for years now, Word has had a feature that lets you center text vertically in table cells. It’s a one-step command that centers the text and keeps it centered even if you change the font size or edit the contents of the cell.

If I were a Microsoft developer, I would really wonder why, after all these years, people still aren’t using the proper command for this type of thing. Clearly, the problem lies with the Word interface, which is so poor that people are not naturally inclined to discover these features, let alone use them on a regular basis.

12 Responses to “Word 2004: How people in the real world align text vertically in tables”

  1. sdimbert says:

    The use of more than one tab at a time is my pet peeve. Argh!

    This past week, I had to show my 7th/8th Grade English class how to use Word’s Styles to make sure that the the information they each entered into the template document I prepared for them was formatted properly. This was so I could be sure that:

    1 – the document’s look was consistent when I conbined all of their work, and
    2 – I could use Word’s Index and TOC commands properly.

    This was a real headache; it was as though I was speaking a different language. These were 13 year-olds who had, literally, been using Word all of thier lives. They had no idea what “Styles” were!

    Word didn’t help, either. Did you know that if you prepare a document with user-defined Styles then email it, empty, to another user, none of your styles appear in the Style Menu in the Formatting Palatte because the menu defaults to show only Styles in Use? Argh! In a blank document, there are NO STYLE IN USE!!!

    Also, the Style Organizer is located in different places in Word 2004 for Mac and Word XP. Dumb, dumb dumb.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Word’s interface is just hopelessly dumb. And whenever they try to “guess” the user’s behaviour, they get it wrong and end up frustrating new and experienced users alike. I am not saying that providing a great UI is easy, but surely it should be possible to provide a better experience than Word currently does.

    For one thing, Microsoft needs to get rid of the schizophrenia and really focus on getting people to use automatic formatting (styles) instead of manual formatting. I mean, why does the Formatting Palette still use these Bold and Italics and Underline buttons? Of course if they are there people are going to use them — and then you get MVPs complaining that so many Word users are still using manual formatting. How surprising.

  3. Clint MacDonald says:

    To this day, i still receive MS Word document (often described as “forms” that must be filled out and returned) that use strings of spaces to format text (say, as a centered headline). A more common, but no less annoying problem is “forms” that use underscores to highlight sections that must be filled in with information such as name, phone number, and the like.

    Is it just me? :-)

    Best wishes,

  4. Patrick Wynne says:

    Good lord, do I know it!

    A couple of years ago I had to edit/update about 17 20-page documents consisting of nothing but tables. The previous editors/writers had done exactly what you described in nearly every cell. Talk about maddening.

    I also had to edit/update 10 documents of two-column, 16+ page price lists for bank services. They were full of tabs and spaces for first line indents, spaces to (sort of) line up right-justified prices instead of the appropriate tab stops and other similar aggravations from ignorant Word users. These documents also used a lot of empty paragraphs for inter-paragraph spacing. The really crazy thing was that these empty paragraphs had had varying line spacing applied to them. If the original writer could figure out how to do that, why couldn’t he/she also figure out the Space Before/Space After feature, which is accessed through the same dialog as Line Spacing?

    The sad fact is, for all its power, Word remains nothing more than a glorified typewriter for most users.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Agreed. I actually have macros that can fairly reliably clean up most of the truly awful formatting stuff. However, there is still a fair amount of stuff to do manually after that, even in the best cases. And even then, Word manages to frustrate endlessly.

    And, as you said, it doesn’t make up for the lousy UI.

  6. Patrick Wynne says:

    The only truly good thing I can say about Word, and it’s something that has saved my ass more times than I can count with just the kinds of situations we’ve all mentioned here, is the macro capabilities.

    It’s no excuse for lousy design in the first place, but at least I can manage to correct the most egregious and widespread formatting crap with a few macros. If not for that, I’m sure I would have put my head through the monitor a long time ago.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    Paul: Not to worry, I do feel the rather absurd nature of what I am doing here from time to time :).

    As for the “inner workings”, I am afraid it would probably be quite disappointing to find out. A mix of personality issues (most of the MS-related people I have been dealing with seem to have a lot of trouble dealing with criticism, no matter how constructive it is), faceless corporate “governance”, limited resources, bad tech support/bug-tracking practices, unsatisfactory hiring practices, excessive pressure from marketing types, etc.

    Probably nothing too surprising. Just typical profit-driven, shareholder-obsessed corporate behaviour, on steroids because it’s Microsoft and it’s so big.

  8. Paul Ingraham says:

    Doubtless that is exactly correct.

    The failure to be responsive to constructive criticism that you’ve mentioned is a bit of an interesting twist, though. That’s not necessarily related to the more Dilbertesque problems that afflict nearly all most large corporations. Maybe getting off-thread here, I recently had an interesting encounter with HP that offers a comparison: in a lengthy complaint process, an HP customer service representative showed every willingness to do the right thing… but his hands were completely tied by red tape. He sincerely wanted to help, but he just couldn’t.

    By contrast, it sounds like you’ve encountered people at MS who wouldn’t do the right thing even if they could!

  9. Paul Ingraham says:

    What fascinates me is speculating about the corporate culture that gives rise to such obviously bad design. How can the world’s most “popular” (read: unavoidable) word processor be so poorly put together? It’s not like MS can’t afford good people!

    Although I enthusiastically support Pierre’s inexhaustible persistence in pointing out just exactly how bad the Word UI is, and why it’s bad, the fact that it’s bad is a bit of a no-brainer. But how did it get that way, and why does it stay that way? Although it’s a dead end with no satisfaction to be had, I remain morbidly curious! What I wouldn’t give for some insight into the inner workings of the beast that periodically belches out these “upgrades”…

    (In case you’re wondering, Pierre, I have decided that my first impression of increased robustness in Office 2004 was terribly misguided, blind optimism. After just a week, I am seriously considering going back to Office X. Gak.)

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    I think MS people are struggling with a fair amount of red tape themselves. It’s unavoidable with any large corporation, with its own army of lawyers. The difference with MS is that sometimes you get the sense that the risk of litigation or breach of confidentiality is used as an excuse not to do or say anything at all. The end result is that they almost never acknowledge bugs, and very rarely actually fix them. It’s as if they were ignoring the numerous bug reports available everywhere (including here). I guess they can get away with it because of the monopoly situation.

    The bit about constructive critism is a separate issue. It seems that MS people are not always professional enough to see past user frustration and understand that the user frustration is justified. It seems that they’d like everyone to be always ultra-nice and polite with them at all times, regardless of their actual frustration with the product, and go, like, “You know, there’s this little bug here in your program that causes all my data to disappear and forces me to restart from scratch. Not counting the many hours of lost productivity, it took me 10 hours of my work hours to put together a 100% reproducible scenario, but I don’t mind wasting my work hours for Microsoft, because you guys are so great. So, now that I’ve put together this 100% reproducible scenario, could you guys please take a look at it and maybe consider this as a bug to fix for, oh, I don’t know, Word 2007, maybe? That would be so kind of you.”

    You get the idea :).

  11. Pierre Igot says:

    Patrick: My experience is that this assertion that there are “thousands/millions of people who use Word as nothing more than a glorified typewriter and never encounter even half of the problems we more advanced users do” is some kind of myth perpetuated by Microsoft’s own spin doctors rather than the actual reality on the field. True, there are many people who don’t use some of Word’s advanced features, but even for simple documents, for fairly simple tasks, Word has a huge number of problems that get in the way of people’s work. Just because you use Word as a “glorified typewriter”, it doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter Word’s numerous irritants, including the myriad of automated behaviours that think that they know what you want better than you do.

    Perpetuating this myth is convenient for Microsoft, because the reason why I, for one, am forced to use Word is not because too many people use Word as a glorified typewriter, but because even those people who use Word as a glorified typewriter end up creating documents that I cannot open/edit/send back using any piece of software other than Microsoft. Even the simplest document can contain automatic bullets/numbering, text frames, and what not — because these things are created automatically by Word even when the user only uses Word as a “glorified typewriter”. And, as soon as a Word document contains these things, I am forced to use Word to edit it.

    As well, there are also thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or indeed millions of Word users who do make an attempt to use some of Word’s more “advanced” features, such as heading styles, tables, etc. And, again, as soon as they do this, Word is designed in such a way that I am forced to use it to deal with their documents.

    The truth is, if Word was really used and really behaved like a glorified typewriter, then we could probably all use TextEdit or another low-cost word processor to exchange files. It’s not because Word users use Word as a glorified typewriter that Microsoft refuses to change the UI. It’s because, if Microsoft changed the UI, many people would not have to use Word at all. Microsoft needs these millions of “glorified typewriter” users, and the only way to keep them hooked is to implement all kinds of automatic behaviours in the UI that turn even the simplest text into a complex “document” that can only be properly edited/read by Word.

  12. Patrick Wynne says:

    Although I enthusiastically support Pierre?s inexhaustible persistence in pointing out just exactly how bad the Word UI is, and why it?s bad, the fact that it?s bad is a bit of a no-brainer. But how did it get that way, and why does it stay that way?

    I have no idea why some of the most egregious bugs and UI screwups exist in the first place, but I think a large part of the reason they don’t ever get fixed is because Microsoft really doesn’t have to. For every Pierre Igot who provides thoughtful and detailed bug reports or feedback, there are literally thousands of people who use Word as nothing more than a glorified typewriter and never encounter even half of the problems we more advanced users do. This user base far outweighs the small but vocal minority that desires change.

    I have absolutely no hope or expectation that MS will ever make the kinds of substantial changes to the Office codebase that are necessary to make using these applications anything but a necessary evil and a tremendous headache to use.

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