Excel 2004: Toolbar layering problem

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
August 23rd, 2005 • 10:00 am

There are a number of third-party Mac OS X applications that use toolbars that don’t work like the standard toolbars used by Mac OS X.

The most notable applications are Microsoft’s Office applications and Adobe’s software suite.

It is one thing to fail to embrace Mac OS X’s standards and to persist in using a non-standard way of doing things. It’s quite another to do it so badly and sloppily that your user interface can quickly turn into a painful eyesore and a usability nightmare.

Predictably, Microsoft are the ultimate specialists in that department. In Excel 2004, for example, you can have multiple toolbars piled up at the top of your screen under the menu bar. But these are not really toolbars. In actual fact, they are small individual windows. Like regular Mac OS X windows, they have a title bar and a close button. They can be resized. They can be moved around.

Unlike regular Mac OS X windows, however, there is absolutely no visual indication of any kind of layering. (There is no indication that one particular toolbar is in the foreground while the other ones are in the background.) So it looks as if all these toolbars are coexisting in the same interface layer. But it’s simply not true. Consider the following screen shot:

Excel 2004 toolbars overlapping

The toolbar at the top is the “Formula Bar.” The toolbar underneath it is the “Standard” toolbar. The Formula Bar has this excessively cumbersome text field for editing the contents of table cells. If the text in a cell is long enough, the text field expands vertically.

And, as you can see in this snapshot, Excel is obviously not smart enough to take the behaviour of its own toolbars into account. So if the Standard toolbar is underneath the Formula Bar, you can have a row of toolbar button in front of the expanded formula text field. Nice, uh?

Fortunately, there is an easy way to solve this particular problem. Just click once on the title bar of the Formula Bar. This will bring it “in front of” the Standard toolbar, and now, when the text field expands vertically, it will do so in front of the Standard toolbar buttons. Unfortunately, this change only sticks as long as you don’t use any buttons in the toolbar that is now in the background. As soon as you use one of those buttons, the background toolbar comes back to the foreground. The only permanent solution is to reshuffle the toolbars so that the Formular Bar is always at the bottom.

The bottom-line here is that there is no visual indication of toolbar layering in the Excel interface. So the user should never have to deal with such issues in the first place.

Microsoft Office applications do have features that attempt to mask this layering problem. For example, if you try to move a toolbar (by dragging its title bar) on top of another toolbar, the application refuses to do that and automatically moves the other toolbar out of the way. In other words, it attempts to “reshuffle” your toolbars for you.

But, as this particular problem with the Formula Bar demonstrates, toolbar layering problems are not difficult to reproduce in Microsoft’s applications. And what it all boils down to is the use of proprietary, non-standard interface features and an utter lack of attention paid to important details that can quickly reveal the shortcomings of these proprietary interface features.

I know that this is the kind of layering mess that exists all over the place in Windows. But Mac OS X users are more demanding. They want a visual interface that is consistent and makes sense. Layered toolbars don’t make any sense.

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