3 brilliant design details from the new Microsoft Office

Since the introduction of Google Docs, many of us avoid Microsoft Office like the plague. But Office is still a mainstay in business. Excel, for instance, is the untouchable spreadsheet champion of the world, which is why a remarkable 1 billion people on the planet still use the software suite. And for all of them, Microsoft is rolling out a series of welcome design updates that should make the experience better. The company is focusing on creating simplicity–but without costing users power.
These updates are a year in the works and promise to be but the first of many starting this June. “We’re on the beginning of the journey. I want to make that part clear,” says Jon Friedman, chief designer on Microsoft Office. “This is not the older world of software where you deliver something and move on to the next thing.” Here are three new features that aren’t just useful–they show where Microsoft is taking its flagship business tools.

A simplified ribbon

Here’s a staggering stat: 95% of people use only 10 commands in the top “ribbon” bar of Outlook. That means that of 32 (or so) functions that might be in a typical Outlook bar, 22 are wasted space. So Microsoft hid them, spreading those functions across various tabs. And that’s true whether you’re in Outlook or Word.

[Image: Microsoft]

Microsoft paired less information with cleaner information by remaking all of the functions as clean, wireframe icons. They’re actually optimized for accessibility for the vision impaired, and scale to tiny sizes clearly. But they also give the ribbon a sense of white space that was lacking before, allowing you, as Friedman puts it, to focus on your emails rather than your menus.

AI Buttons

But can a simpler menu bar become too simple? In some cases, yes. So Microsoft had to negotiate where–and how–to surface the rest of the program’s deep library of commands. “It turns out, 95% of the things people do are 10 commands in Outlook,” Friedman reiterates. “The other 5% are the 11th, 12th, and 13th commands that I use, and they’re completely different from the 11th, 12th, and 13th commands that you use.” In other words, we’re all the same user until the point we’re different. And when we’re different, we’re incredibly different.

[Image: Microsoft]

To accommodate each unique case, Microsoft deployed AI. Tap on a search bar, and search lists the top three commands on your screen that you’re most likely to need–customized to you. The technology is called “0-Query” and it doesn’t even need you to type in the search bar to give you a predictive answer. Truth be told, it’s similar to the way that iOS and Android suggest apps that you’re likely to open at any given time, but it’s the first time we’ve seen this tool applied to desktop productivity software.

“We’re very [focused on] anticipating people’s needs,” says Friedman. “We think this is what’s going to allow us to find that balance between simplicity and power.”

Emotional Understanding

Another addition? “We have this little Coming Soon button in Outlook, and we want to give [users] a heads up,” says Friedman. “If an Outlook visual refresh is coming soon, we show them it’s coming up, and ask them if it helps [to get the heads up].”

Sounds minor, right? Why create this feature?

[Image: Microsoft]

As part of the design process, Microsoft did empathic research, surveying users to figure out what made their favorite productivity apps their favorites–and that included studying their own software and that of competitors.

What Microsoft concluded was that people wanted to feel three sensations when working with business tools: productive, in control, and safe. And they wanted to avoid two feelings: inadequacy and uncertainty.

Moving forward, Microsoft wants to focus many of its design updates in Office in response to these core emotions. Perhaps that sounds too heady, but it’s not really that complicated.

A perfect example of how small design features can quell uncertainty? “If you chase [features] without understanding the emotional response to them, then you might find yourself in a place where you have something highly efficient but not enjoyable,” says Friedman.

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