The Excel 2007 User Experience

Finally got round to reviewing a blog post from MSDN about the User Experience design supporting Excel 2007. Of course this is all related to my recent exposure to the Microsoft UE process but I’m very interested in this post as it interrogates the charting functionality of Excel.

I have always hated the generic purples, blues and greys of Excel charts that adorn the lazy man’s presentation, pin board or meeting notes. Ignoring the power of colour in visual communication (<- excellent blog link) and the need to engage their audience, many users of the ubiquitous spreadsheet simply deployed the wizard to create a generic chart. In this regard Microsoft approached the problem with the end-users’ problem in mind: how do I create a good looking and meaningful chart? When I create charts in Excel I take a (probably excessively) long time over the style and colour to ensure it’s clear and compelling. More often than not, I’ll begin my charting process by sketching out what I want to see before tracking back to the data to work out how I need to tell the Wizard to work. I consider myself and experienced (but not expert) user of Excel but it’s clearly the users without the time and experience who pump out the sort of drab chart output I described above. So the process needs to work for power users and novices. Sometimes the best charts are mutli-type or multi-dimensional. So, for example, you use bars with lines on two axes and maybe some colouring to demonstrate some other variable. Working out this kind of stuff the first time you hit the ‘make a chart’ functionality has previously been impossible. One of the great featurettes of photo editing software has been the preview functionality of applying changes. Adding this sort of creative sandbox to the charting process enables users to tinker and play with their chart in the wizard environment without getting to the end and committing themselves to the wrong design, only to have to re-launch the wizard to amend it.

The end result for customers has been a template heavy solution that suits beginners and non-creative types but where the design crumbles is its lack of support for power users. As one commenter puts it, the support for people working with complex data has made way for “fluff to make column charts with gradient colours”. Whilst Microsoft have to cater for the large number of business users that just need to present some simple data, the fact of the matter is the tool is powerful enough to be used to analyze far more complex data sets and by ignoring these users they seem to have missed a trick. However, one final ray of light, in responding to these comments it appears Microsoft continue to listen and, where possible, they’ll begin to introduce such functionality in later releases. Too bad their UCD wasn’t quite representative enough.


Do Users Want, Need or Desire A Startup Sound?

Couple of quick ‘hmm that’s interesting’ links. Firstly, related to my Vista post the other day, here’s a short NPR piece on the new Vista startup sound. They only get to the nub of the matter towards the end of this clip so I’d be really interested in other people’s opinions on auditory feedback in interfaces. It’s not something Tjeerd mentioned last week but it’s clearly something Apple take seriously too …

Secondly, I’m always a fan of Marc McNeill’s posts over at
Dancing Mango (etymology of the title?) so was delighted to read the ‘needs vs. wants’ item last week. Coming as it did on the back of Dan’s UX2006 session which had already got me thinking more profoundly about personas, this post is a good reminder about interrogating user motivation. Some of the comments it has received are a little rambling but worth reviewing all the same.


World Usability Day 2006: 14th November

Rather lamely I'm going to link out to the Making Life Easy (MLE) blog today to reference world usability day. I wanted to do something at The Company to highlight everyday usability (which basically involved the setting alarm clocks problem) but that never flew so this MLE blog represents someone else's attempt to illustrate great and grim design. I think this image from the Boston UPA site (and postcard they sent out) illustrates the concept fantastically.


PhotoSynth and Vista. A Leap forward in User Experience?

A lot of good stuff coming out of Microsoft recently. The presentation by Tjeerd at UX 2006 showed some lovely attention to detail for GUI design in Vista (even if some people insist it's a Mac rip-off) and then there's this PhotoSynth stuff from the Live Labs. I blogged about the demo video in August and now there's a working demo available. Be warned, you do need at least a Gig of RAM and admin rights on your PC.
Regarding Vista, There are plenty of jerky videos of Vista on YouTube but I'd read it straight from the proverbial horse's mouth here and take a look at Tjeerd's pages here.
Not sure if PhotoSynth quite works how i'd hoped it would but I do think there's a function of how many photos have been loaded in and how fast the PC is. Several times I clicked in for a closeup and got the other side of a building instead and I'm not sure quite how the 3D dot-map should work - is is a quide to the space you're in? Is each dot a unique photo?