The Word Processor: 5 things that should be brutally murdered

18 Jun

Word processors. They’re quite possibly the most dull necessity, the most boring tool that nearly ever computer user needs. They tend to remind you that "your computer is for work, dammit!". As soon as that splash screen appears, you know you’re in for some kind of hell, where you type and type to the best of your ability only to have it mock your spelling, then crash and make you do the whole thing again. Well, if I’m going to toil over my keyboard for this damned assignment you’ve made me do 3 times, I’m going to call you out on all your brutal cruelties!

Shotgun Shell #1: The Save Button

The save button. Heaven forbid you get carried away in your typing, feeling a smooth flow as you move from paragraph to paragraph! Such behaviour and feelings of achievement will be punished, with the loss of all your work thus far!

Seriously, though: why do we still need this? Why do we have to stop typing, break our track of thought, click, "save" then try to pick up where we left off every 5 minutes?

Here, I’ll tell you how I would do it: when the user creates a new document, ask them where to put the file before opening it. Save as they’re typing every so often, and save when they stop typing for a few seconds too. Keep a, "save a copy" button around in case they want to create another file from it. Otherwise, just take away that irritating distraction of saving every 5 minutes and do it for them, so they can focus on what’s actually important: What’s in the document.

Shotgun Shell #2: The Cluttered Toolbars

Why are these things still around? How many people temporarily turn off spell-checking so often that they need a toggle button in the toolbar? And the non-printing characters: why on Earth would we want to see something that isn’t even there? Why do I need a zoom button in the toolbar when I’ve already got a much-more-useful zoom slider in the statusbar? Why do I have bullet-list and numbered-list buttons when they could go in the, "style" list, below heading types and paragraphs? Why do I need a print preview button, when the document should look exactly like I’ve formatted it on the screen? And finally, why are all these items represented by dinky little icons, some of which are too vague to make sense of on their own?

While we’re at it, why are they at the top of the window, when vertical space is, relatively speaking, what I’m lacking? Why not put them on the side, where I’ve got yarns of space, and give them some clear name to boot? And for crying out loud, why give me a cluttered toolbar and a cluttered application menu, with the same function being represented in several places?

Options need to be removed, grouped or made more concise somehow. No, Microsoft’s new Ribbon interface is not the solution: I have just as many options, with sometimes even more vague icons, but now I can never find just what I want in all those tabs and I can see even less of my document, which should be the focus of my attention.

Shotgun Shell #3: The Find Dialogue

The find dialogue. Goodness, remember when Internet Explorer had a find dialogue? These things should have died with the rise of Firefox and the streamlined search bar, but no, we still get obtrusive find dialogues in our word processors, cluttering up our task-bar and getting in the way of our document.

Why haven’t these been moved into their own, embedded find/replace bars? How is it confusing to use or understand? How does this get in the way where a dialogue window doesn’t? Why are we still in the stone age of computers when it comes to word processors?

Shotgun Shell #4: Poor Collaboration Implementations

Yes, many word processors today include collaboration options from change-tracking and comments to full-blown simultaneous multi-user editing, but too often they’re buried deep in that hell of a menu system somewhere, leaving most users feeling isolated and lonely on their work. Moreover, when you do turn them on and use them, they just look outright ugly. Even worse, though, is that you can barely tell what indicates change-tracking and what indicates document design, with background colours changing pell-mell leaving users trying to revert the background back to white with some toolbar button somewhere… and the comments! The comments sometimes bring up this ugly grey bar on the side of your document with yellow, sticky-note-esque comments that yell at you whether you like it or not.

For change-tracking: surround the text with a light halo that responds to mouse movement, to clearly state, "This is not part of the document", then display the editor responsible for that text in a small pop-up. In fact, while you’re at it, put comments there too, so I only see the comments I want to see when I want to see them. Separate collaboration features from document editing and structure. Adding and changing comments can be done the same way: select/hover over a piece of text for, say, 3 seconds with your mouse and have it pop up with the same tooltip as before as well as a, "Click here to add a comment…" piece of italic text. Click on it and start writing. It’s simple, it’s obvious, it’s user-facing and yet, it gets out of the user’s way when they don’t want it. It’s not hidden away somewhere in the Edit menu, and it’s not bloody annoying.

Shotgun Shell #5: Multimedia As The Working-Class

In the 21st century, we have websites that let you click, drag and crop images on-the-fly. Why, then, do I still drag a faded duplicate of the image, with little/no idea of what it’s going to do to the text when I let go of the mouse button? Why is managing any more than 1 image such a big hassle? Especially in college projects, where word processors and images are used hand-in-hand, why are images still sort-of-hackishly-tacked-on? And how about multimedia notes, where you attach speech to the documents for other editors? (actually, maybe that’s not such a great idea…)

My point is, people include much more than text in their documents, and they do it very often. These other features, though, just aren’t given the attention they deserve. They often feel sloppily tacked-on, not properly fitting with the text and sometimes even crashing the whole program. Irritating!

Thus concludes my rant. Word processors: something else I put up with but hate every second of…

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3 Responses to “The Word Processor: 5 things that should be brutally murdered”

  1. the Madman June 18, 2010 at 17:30 #

    What do YOU hate about office productivity software? What software design choices get on your nerves the most? Am I just a barking lunatic? Discuss!

  2. Jason "moofang" June 26, 2010 at 18:19 #

    I hate word processors with a passion too, and you’ve pretty much nailed all of my complaints. I’ve so used to ctrl-s-ing as a type that it’s spasmodically reflexive now 😛

    Notably, KWord 2 seems to be making something of an effort to address the terrible horizontal toolbar UI thing, though the thing is still simply not performant enough for me to comfortably use yet…

  3. Vincent-Xavier November 23, 2010 at 22:19 #

    Why don’t you use LaTeX with your favorite text editor, which apperas to be a very simple tool, that you can customize. Text editors are reliable software. Then LaTeX compilation products so nice documents, without the Multimedia Class.

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