077. What Is Software Bloat, Really?
File, Edit, View, Insert, Tools, Window, Help — the common top-level menu of Office applications after a decade of organization and design battles
In this and the next five sections, the story of Office12 (Office 2007) unfolds. This is really the story of the development of the new user interface for Office, which became known as the Ribbon. To many readers, this will seem much smaller today than it was at the time, and that is understandable. I hope to put this work in the context of the day so readers can see just how big a deal this was. The graphical interface was the paradigm of computing. The menu bar was the manifestation of that. The addition of graphical buttons or toolbars was a significant advance and clearly the biggest addition to the WIMP paradigm.
One of the realities about a common toolset is that over time all applications get commoditized or at least appear the same. Everything looked like a big collection of buttons. That means two tools in the same category (two spreadsheets) will converge in how they look, and to the market they will be perceived as interchangeable. This perceived commoditization is one half of the story of Office12. The other half is figuring out how to make our extremely sophisticated products usable to hundreds of millions of people, something without precedent. A car typically has a dozen controls one needs to know to use it. Microwaves, televisions, thermostats, and so on are usually less than that.
Regardless of the reason, Office has thousands of commands. Making sense of those is an impossible customer task. So, what did we do? This section is an overview of the specifics of bloat. The next section presents some history, and then the design over the remaining sections.
In 2001, Jon Stewart, the legendary host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, performed a hilarious and brutal takedown of a redesign of CNN’s Headline News show. In the segment, he took to task the departure from the traditional talking head, as epitomized by Walter Cronkite and the evening news (and Jon Stewart). He mocked Generation Y (eventually called Millennials) for favoring a seeming onslaught of disparate information at once rather than one camera and a single story at a time. Stewart referred to a new look that “ . . . offers a great way to find out everything without the pressure of retaining anything.”
The punchline, almost 20 years later, is that the redesign Stewart mocked became standard across every medium, web, broadcast, cable, Bloomberg, YouTube, and today’s phone apps. We can bemoan such a change or accept the fact that people prefer consuming information differently than they did a generation earlier. The reality back in 2001 was that people were leaving TV news in droves in favor of on-demand, concise, and always available internet-based news displayed on crowded home pages.
Around the same time, the TV show 24 was considered both a breakthrough and critically panned for a similar departure from the tradition. The show was fast paced, had a complex narrative, and featured dozens of characters moving in and out of each other’s story lines. Critics said the narrative was overly complex. The same generational change was afoot, and the MTV Generation was raised on fast-paced video, clipped dialog, and rapid cutting between scenes. To this new audience, 24 seemed entirely consumable. The single-camera sitcom was in its twilight.
Design, whether functional or aesthetic, is a product of the context of the times. When contexts change—meaning the people and their needs and the available tools and technologies—designs need to change as well.
File, Edit, View, Insert, Tools, Window, Help.
Like the catchy lyrics to a well-worn pop song, in Office we knew the top-level menus appearing consistently in each of the applications. We spent almost 10 years convincing, cajoling, and aligning each other around these words as though they were carved in stone. In fact, these words were the product of compromise—first a compromise between Microsoft and Apple on the original Macintosh applications and then a compromise between our new Windows applications and Macintosh versions. Finally, there was a compromise across Office to reach consistency. As with many compromises, no one was particularly happy with the result and there were plenty of exceptions, but nobody was all that unhappy either.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was our menu structure and our customers liked it. So much so, it was widely emulated across the industry. That made it carved in stone. It was like so many arbitrary design choices that somehow develop a lore of great design, like QWERTY keyboards or P-R-N-D in a car.
While rather adaptable creatures, humans tend to react poorly to change imposed upon them—a new stoplight, a new layout for a website, or the most heinous of all modern changes, a new software user interface for an existing product. Unexpected or imposed changes are viewed at best as arbitrary and at worst as bad (incredibly bad). It is exceedingly rare in the world of software to see existing users embrace major changes to mature products.
Consider something that most of us would today think of as rather benign, a change in the layout and typography of a print-based magazine. Magazines would devote a few pages explaining the design and rationale or perhaps even TV commercials as The Economist did with their 2001 redesign. Such “bold” (they always called them bold) redesigns would often become the subject of weeks of letters to the editor complaining about the failings of the effort and calling for a return to the old design, followed by the inevitable subscription cancellations.
Even if a product makes it through a big change, there often remains an undercurrent harkening back to the good old days for a long time. Whether it is simply conservatism or as some express a true loss of efficiency or effectiveness with a product, change is hardly ever free of controversy.
Yet, we live in a constant state of change. What is it that separates the changes that cause an uproar from the changes that happen with little notice? Technology is changing all around. Consumer behavior and work norms are regularly evolving. Competitors with new perspectives arise frequently. Often competitors with a fancy new design might even compete directly with a small portion of a larger established product with a tired design. Perhaps the new product even garners outsized attention because of that new design, less so than the features it brings. Failing to change remains the biggest mistake technology companies can make.
And as I’d soon learn, failing to change correctly is the second biggest mistake technology companies make. There are no rule books or guidelines that govern how much a product can change and when. There are many books telling you if you don’t change, you’re doomed. There are also a lot of books telling stories of changes going haywire. (Note to readers, this work is both of those).
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