Office 2004: Interface for password protection extremely poor

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
January 7th, 2005 • 5:52 am

If you’ve ever tried to protect a Word or Excel document with a password, you are probably already aware of how confusing the interface is. It probably is a perfect illustration of how poorly designed Microsoft’s software is.

To begin with, the interface is not the same whether you are in Word or in Excel. You’d think that this would be a typical situation where having the same, consistent interface across all Office applications would make sense. However, being consistent and making sense are not exactly strong qualities at Microsoft.

Let’s start with the less offensive of the two, i.e. password protection in Excel. First of all, there is the issue of where to find the option. One’s immediate impulse is to look in Excel’s menus. And there is a submenu called “Protection” in the “Tools” menu. Sounds like what we’re looking for, right?

Not quite. Don’t waste any time trying to use the commands in that “Protection” submenu. They have absolutely nothing to do with protecting your Excel document itself as a whole. Adding protection with the commands in that submenu will not prevent any Excel user from opening the document without a password.

Even though it’s far from clear in the way the menu items are named, these commands are actually for protecting your document against changes. But they won’t protect your document from being viewed by someone else.

If you want to prevent other people from viewing your document unless they have a password, you actually need to use the “Options…” button that appears in the “Save As…” dialog box when you save your document. Needless to say, if you have already saved your document, this means that you have to manually select the “Save As…” command in order to have access to password protection, and that you have to manually replace your existing document with a new copy saved with password protection. Yet more wonderful convenience and intuitiveness from Microsoft.

Finally, you will notice that, as soon as you click on that “Options…” button in the “Save As…” dialog box, Excel actually closes the “Save As…” dialog box before opening the “Save Options” dialog box.
What is that supposed to mean? Well, it’s Microsoft version of the relationship between a main dialog box (accessible directly from a menu command) and a secondary dialog box (accessible only through a button in the main dialog box). Even though there is absolutely no visual indication of this, the “Save Options” dialog box is actually a secondary dialog box, and the main dialog box (the “Save As…” sheet) is not actually closed even though it looks like Excel is closing it.

Indeed, as soon as you exit the “Save Options” dialog box, Excel reopens the “Save As…” sheet. Why does it do this? Why does it go through all this trouble, instead of simply displaying the “Save Options” dialog box on top of the “Save As…” dialog sheet?

Why — because it’s Microsoft, of course.

And then there is Word… The problems with password protection in Word are pretty much the same as with Excel. Here too, the “Protect Document…” command in the “Tools” menu has nothing to do with password protecting your document. Here too, it is done through the “Save As…” command.

But there is an additional twist. When you click on the “Options…” button in the “Save As…” dialog sheet, Word doesn’t just temporarily close the “Save As…” dialog sheet and open a “Save Options” secondary dialog box. It actually opens Word’s “Preferences…” dialog box instead!

Actually, it’s not the “full” dialog box, but some kind of semi-disabled version of it, where only the applicable options are available. This stems, of course, from the fact that, contrary to one of the fundamental rules of interface design, Word’s “Preferences…” dialog box (accessible through the application menu) actually contains not just application-wide preferences, but also document-specific settings.

It’s a horrible thing, but it’s the truth. So instead of designing a specific secondary “Save Options” dialog box, Microsoft’s lazy engineers have actually created some kind of interface monster consisting of a semi-disabled version of an existing dialog box that contains all kinds of settings that have nothing to do with saving options.

Needless to say, it’s a huge dialog box that’s even bigger than the “Save As…” dialog sheet, which is likely to even further confuse the user about what is going on and where exactly Word is taking him.

So there you have it: Even something that should be extremely simple, like password protecting your documents, turns out to be some kind of user interface monster that is likely to discourage most Office users from ever using the “feature”.

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