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Posted by gustav at 08:01AM, Wednesday, December 08th, 2004

Word: Still Sucks

I've been having to use Microsoft Office a lot lately for work. I'd had a pleasant respite, but I'm starting to remember all the little things that drove me nuts about it. Today, I find one that, I think, neatly encapsulates everything that's wrong with Microsoft's products.

I'm searching for the string "date" in this technical document. Now, in an ideal world, all current software would have emacs-style search (Firefox-style, for those not unix-inclined) where you enter a term in a little buffer at the bottom of your window, and as you type more, the search gets progressively more specific, and updates its matches.

Clearly, though, we don't live in an ideal world. So I bring up the "Find and Replace" dialog box in Word. I type in "date", and click "Find Next." So far so good. In this particular document, "date" appears many times on the page. So the find function highlights the first one. Then I click "Find Next" again, and it highlights the next one. The thing is, the next occurrence is in the part of the document that's obscured by the absurdly-large "Find and Replace" dialog box. What most Mac applications do in this case is to scroll the document slightly, so that that formerly-obscured part of the document is now visible. What Word 2002 for Windows 2000 does is move the dialog box itself, presumably because the time required to redraw the screen if it scrolled the document might be longer than the time to redraw the dialog box.

What's wrong with this, you ask? Well, if I'm going to search through a long document for a few dozen instances of my match before finding the one I want, every time the dialog box moves, I'll have to move the mouse over to the tiny "Find Next" button. If the document scrolled, instead, I wouldn't have to move it, and I could just keep clicking. Scrolling the document might be slightly longer for the computer, but it's quicker for me. Moving the dialog box might take imperceptibly less time for the computer to render, but I need to grab the mouse and move it and then click again, so it's much slower for me.

Microsoft geeks argue that the Microsoft way is better, because the screen just might draw faster. Human factors geeks pull out Fitts's law, and point out that Word is saying "Screw you" to its users, by prioritizing computer speed over the time it takes a user to finish a task. They also point out that, had Microsoft conducted effective usability testing on the product, they'd never have released it this way.

The Microsoft geeks counter that, if moving the mouse is such a pain for you, you should be using the keyboard anyway, since it's faster. Human factors geeks respond that the whole "keyboard control is faster thing" is a myth, an effect of cognitive process, that's shown to be invalid by using a stopwatch, and that, if you want to use a keyboard anyway, well, shouldn't you just have implemented emacs-style search in the first place, rather than showing a pretty yet time-sucking dialog box?

Microsoft geeks shout that there's no pleasing some people, and storm off. Human factors geeks retreat to the comfort of their PowerBooks, and whine about how Tiger's okay, but it's no System 7.
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