Is Office 2007 Trickier for Users than Originally Expected?

According to Forrester Research, companies migrating to Microsoft Office 2007 are experiencing "more intense" training experiences than they had expected. Microsoft radically changed the user interface in key Office applications such as Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, and, to a lesser degree, Outlook, in Office 2007, the first time the Office UI has been changed demonstrably since the suite was first introduced over a decade ago. Microsoft says that the new UI is more intuitive and exposes more functionality in a discoverable way than did older Office UIs.

Office 2007's user interface is based around a context-sensitive visual feature called the Ribbon that exposes functionality that is relevant to the task at hand. For example, when you're editing text in Microsoft Word 2007, the Home tab in the Ribbon displays options for fonts, paragraphs, styles, and editing. But when an image is inserted in the document, a new Picture Tools - Format tab appears, with options related to pictures.

According to Forrester Research, business migration to Office 2007 will be slow, with most enterprises waiting 3 to 5 years to make the switch. Part of the reason is the new UI. Though Office changed little from a usability perspective over the past decade, Office 2007 is a radical shift and will require both in-person and online training time, Forrester says. Most business users will require two to three hours of formal training, according to Forrester analysts, followed by a two to four week period of decreased efficiency while they get used to using the new UI for work.

With over 500 million active Office users worldwide, making a radical UI switch was an aggressive and risky move. But Microsoft says that the old UI, based around a menu and toolbar paradigm first utilized over 20 years ago, was no longer appropriate for an application suite with such a wide range of functionality. Microsoft also believes that the new Office 2007 UI will require little training and that it will ultimately result in fewer help calls, since it makes it easier for users to get work done quickly. Inexperienced users will see the biggest benefits, Microsoft adds, while very experienced Office users will need to relearn some skills.

In my own tests of Office 2007, I've found the new Ribbon-based UI to be intuitive, easy-to-use, and non-disruptive. Arguably, I'm an experienced Office user: As the author of almost 20 books and a decade's worth of experience with the product, I use Office on a daily basis, often for hours at a time. This, of course, contradicts some of the conventional wisdom about this release. It will be interesting to see how users really do react to Office 2007 a year or so from now.

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