R.I.P WYSIWYG? Not so fast…

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Microsoft, Technology
October 13th, 2005 • 4:58 pm

So-called interface expert Jakob Nielsen recently posted a column in which he appears to have “seen the light” when it comes to what the next generation user interface is going to be like. And get this: the perfect incarnation of this next generation UI is… the upcoming Microsoft Office 12.

I guess it’s the ultimate proof of the effectiveness of the brute force approach. Destroy the competition with your own inferior product and dubious marketing practices, so that the majority of people, due to a lack of exposure, completely lose sense of what a good UI should be—and then come up with marketing speak about a new “results-oriented” interface and be hailed as the new user interface messiah.

Yeah sure.

If even Jakob Nielsen takes the bite, I guess it really means that all hope is lost.

It seems to me that any “interface expert” that has spent a significant amount of time trying to use Microsoft’s products should have realized, by now, that Microsoft is a company that is utterly unable to comply with most of the basic requirements of a usable interface, such as consistency, reliability, predictability, etc.

But then, this latest column by Mr. Nielsen demonstrates that he has a fairly twisted understanding of usability in the first place. For one thing, in his column, he confuses a graphic UI with a WYSIWYG UI, as if these two concepts were the same. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is nothing “WYSIWYG” about menu and windows, simply because there is no distinction between the “seeing” and the “getting.” WYSIWYG is all about document creation and the issue of whether the document as you are working on it looks the same as the document once you have “published” it (either by printing it or by posting it on the web). This has nothing to do with the menus and windows that define the graphic UI. You never “publish” the menus and windows of your graphic UI. They don’t exist beyond the computing environment that you are working in.

I don’t think that, by confusing these two things, Jakob Nielsen is helping his cause here.

And now all of a sudden we are supposed to believe him when he says that Microsoft have been purged of all their interface sins and have become the new interface innovators? Take a look at the New Microsoft Office User Interface Overview. Does it really look all that revolutionary to you?

We have yet to see it in action, of course. But “contextual command tabs” that only appear when they are needed? Isn’t this what already happens with these stupid built-in toolbars in Word that keep popping up when I do certain things, even though I don’t want them?

Since when are Microsoft engineers good at guessing what the user wants and what he needs? The Microsoft page also says: “In current versions of Microsoft Office, these commands can be difficult to find or become elusive.” I am glad that they are admitting their own faults here. But this has been true for years, and with each new version of Office in the past decade or so, Microsoft have bragged about having finally cleaned up their act and come up with a truly user-friendly interface. The reality is that the current UI is just as messy as the one before it. And there is really very little reason to believe that the next one will be any better.

As for WYSIWYG, it seems to me that it’s an entirely separate issue, and that there is absolutely no connection with the revamped UI in Office 12. OK, sure, now we’ll get a “live preview” of things. But what this means (in theory, that is) is better WYSIWYG—not the death of it!

In other words, this column by Jakob Nielsen does nothing to confirm his status as “the king of usability”—quite the contrary.

5 Responses to “R.I.P WYSIWYG? Not so fast…”

  1. Michael Tsai - Blog - R.I.P WYSIWYG? says:

    […] Pierre Igot rebuts Jakob Nielson. […]

  2. ssp says:

    I found Nielsen’s confusion of WYSIWYG and GUI quite irritating as well. Just because I’ve been using GUI based environments of TeX with menus, drag and drop and all that jazz doesn’t make it WYSIWYG I suppose ;)

    And while I lack knowledge about the details of current or future versions of MS Office, what he describes sounds like what I’d consider the typical Microsoft approach of dumbing down their software and limiting the options they give you (or at least make it annoyingly complicated to get the software to do whatever you want).

    Luckily I don’t really need to care about all this…

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, you are lucky enough not to have to use Office. Not all of us are as lucky :-/.

  4. Matt Gemmell » Blog Archive » It’s a paradigm says:

    […] I came to this by seeing Michael’s link to Pierre’s rebuttal of Nielsen’s article in my feeds. Pierre rightly notes how Nielsen completely fudges the difference between a GUI and the concept of WYSIWYG editing, but I can understand that to some extent: Nielsen writes as a usability pundit, and it makes far better copy to talk of the end of an eternally-buzzy paradigm like What You See Is What You Get. He also throws in reference to “Macintosh-style interaction design”, presumably to court controversy whilst picking a safe target. […]

  5. robertm says:

    Neilsen’s info is always interesting but because he uses surveys, his advice always caters to the lowest common denominator: someone with not-so-good eyesight who doesn’t spend much time with computers or on the web. And what’s most usable for that person is going to be less than ideal for, say, the average teenager.

    Nice to see Microsoft picking up on brushed metal and Aqua gel buttons though.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.