Desperately seeking smarter word processor

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft, Pages
February 8th, 2010 • 3:39 pm

Take the following excerpt from a simple word processor document:

Char formatting

Note where the insertion point is located (at the beginning of the second paragraph).

Now what do you think will happen when I start typing from that insertion point?

More specifically, do you expect the inserted text to be in bold or not?

Well, here is what happens:

Char formatting

The text is in bold. Why? The reason is simple. The previous paragraph ended with text in bold, and I only changed back to regular (not bold) at the beginning of the next paragraph before typing “Not bold.”

In such a situation, Pages, like other common word processors, “remembers” the exact location where the change from bold to regular took place, even though that location is now invisible to the user. And when the user places the insertion point in that same location (even though the user cannot tell that this is the location where the change from bold to regular was made) and starts typing, the resulting inserted text is… in bold.

On the other hand, if, when typing the first paragraph, I had changed back from bold to regular before inserting the paragraph mark (i.e. before typing Return), this problem would not be occurring now.

Yet, from a purely visual standpoint, the two different behaviours produce the exact same result. the first paragraph ends with something in bold (including the closing period) and the second paragraph begins with something not in bold.

Now my question is simple: Why can’t we get a word processor that is smart enough to understand that, in 99% of all cases, when the user goes to insert something at the beginning of the second paragraph, he expects that something to be in the character formatting of that paragraph (i.e. here the regular font) and not in the character formatting of the end of the previous paragraph (i.e. here the bold font)?

Is that really too much to ask?

Yes, I know that, from the perspective of the word processor program itself, the behaviour above makes sense. The change from bold to regular was made after inserting the paragraph mark, so to the word processor it makes sense to begin the second paragraph in bold. But it does not make sense from a purely visual point of view, which is all that the user can refer to once the typing has been done.

Now, of course, since I am more than familiar with this problem myself, I am usually careful to change my character formatting back before inserting a return character at the end of my paragraph. So for documents that I create myself, I don’t usually encounter the issue described above (except when unwanted text selection problems make it inevitable that I end up applying my formatting to unwanted trailing characters such as spaces and invisible return characters).

My real problem is that, in my job, I spend a lot of time editing other people’s documents. And the number of documents exhibiting the issue described above that I have to deal with is frustratingly high. There are probably various reasons for this, but the main one is of course the lack of intuitiveness of word processor interfaces in general and the lack of proper training of most word processor users.

It is for that same reason that there are no simple solutions to the problem. In the example above, it is merely a matter of switching back from bold to regular, which is not too painful. But far too often the character formatting changes are numerous: different font, different weight, different size, different colour, etc. It is simply too frustrating to have to change all these manually.

And reverting back to the paragraph’s underlying default character formatting by stripping all the inappropriate manual formatting with a “Remove Formatting” type of command usually is not an option either. More often than not, those word processor users who only change formatting options after inserting the paragraph mark are the same users who do not know how to use paragraph styles, and so apply document-wide formatting options manually as well. This means that the underlying default character formatting of the paragraph (i.e. the character formatting defined in the default paragraph style) does not match the actual default character formatting used in the document. Stripping the unwanted manual formatting also strips the manual formatting that needs to be preserved.

There is no easy solution here. The only tolerable approach that I have found when this happens to me is the following. Instead of putting my insertion point at the beginning of the paragraph, where I get the wrong character formatting when I start typing, I put it one or two characters to the right, inside the first word of the paragraph. I start typing what I want, then I go back to the beginning of the paragraph and remove the extra letters that I no longer want, and then I jump back after the first few letters that I have typed and resume typing.

It is utterly inelegant, but it is the only realistic solution that I have found.

Of course, as an experienced and demanding Mac user, I am profoundly bothered by inelegant solutions, even when I have no choice but to use them. Each time I have to use them, it adds a little bit to the low-level frustration that I experience on a continuous basis in my daily work due to the limitations and lack of intelligence of the tools that I am forced to use. I simply cannot resign myself and get used to this situation. I dream of smarter tools. I strongly believe that they are more than possible with today’s hardware and software. It is just a matter of “political” will. But the priorities of the market and of our current crop of “innovators” are obviously elsewhere.

In an ideal world, innovation would take place on a continuous basis on multiple fronts, including less “flashy” and less glamorous areas such as word processing and text editing. But that ideal world is far from today’s reality, where word processors are more or less just as dumb as they were 20 years ago (and not even faster!).

UPDATE: Sven-S. Porst writes to report that Apple’s own TextEdit behaves properly, and so do AppleWorks and InDesign. Even the basic (WebKit) text editor used when composing messages in Mail or filling out forms in Safari actually behaves properly too. I was able to verify this myself in TextEdit, Mail, and InDesign.

Considering the lack of polish otherwise afflicting all these other tools, this is rather shocking news. It appears to confirm that both Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages, the two flagship word processors for Mac OS X, have their own way of doing things and can’t get the simple things right, even after years and years (decades in the case of Word) of supposed polishing, fine-tuning and improvements.

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