Yesterday, I talked about "command loops," in which commands not available at the same time in a modal user interface can cause frustration or reduced efficiency due the mode switch required to access both of them.

When we looked closely at the command loops people were experiencing in our early Office 12 prototypes, almost all of them were related to text formatting.  Someone would be creating a caption or a footnote or a comment and they wanted a simple way to access the Bold button with the mouse.  (If you use the keyboard to access bold, there is no command loop because keyboard shortcuts are inherently modeless.)

Out of the search for a solution to this problem was born the MiniBar.  (If you've heard the term "Floatie" before, the MiniBar is the same thing.  "Floatie" was our internal name for what we're now calling the "MiniBar."  Aren't names fun?)

At Microsoft, we've been using a UI mechanism we call "on-object UI" for a couple of years.  For instance, when Word AutoCorrects your capitalization or spelling in Office 2003, a little tag shows up around the word that was corrected.  If you click on it, a menu pops down inviting you to undo the correction or to turn off AutoCorrection altogether.

(A form of on-object UI in Word 2003)

This has been a moderately successful mechanism at exposing people to features they wouldn't normally see.  But the MiniBar had a more ambitious goal: try to use the concepts behind on-object UI to improve the efficiency of mouse users.  Whereas most of our current on-object UI exposes fairly obscure or hard-to-find features, the MiniBar provides access to the formatting commands people use the most.

When you select text in Office 12, the MiniBar appears "ghosted" above the text you selected.  If you move closer to the MiniBar, it fades in and becomes a miniature toolbar you can use to apply Bold, Italic, Font Size, Color, etc.  As you move the pointer away from the edge of the MiniBar, it fades away to nothing.  So, if you don't want to use the MiniBar on selection, just move your cursor a few pixels away and it dismisses.

Here's a little movie I made that demonstrates the MiniBar in action:

(Click to view movie - Windows Media Format, 982 KB)

(You can also download the 1.2 MB high quality movie, but you'll have to have the free VMWare Movie Decoder codec installed.)

The MiniBar is designed to reduce the amount your mouse has to travel around the screen by allowing on-object tweaks to formatting.  At the same time, we wanted to make sure that it's not annoying by designing it to be incredibly shy and easy to dismiss.  In fact, our current feedback shows that the MiniBar is actually too shy, and we need to dial back the dismiss behavior a little bit to strike the right balance between predictability, ease-of-use, and annoyance.

We also know there are "selection readers" out there.  (I'm one of them.)  Selection readers are just what they sound like: people who select text in a document as they read it.  Maybe it's a kind of nervous habit.  For me, I think I do it to kind of help me keep my place in the document.  Regardless, we knew that the MiniBar would fail if it annoyed the "selection readers", and we've gone out of our way to try to make it undisruptive.

Of course, if you think having the MiniBar come up on selection would annoy you no matter what, you can turn it off.  We've added the MiniBar to the top of context menus as well, so you can turn off the on-object MiniBar and still only be a right-click away from top formatting commands.  But most people who have used it, including those who were initially very skeptical of the concept, have come around to make it a major part of the way they work.

I do love the thing and it drives me crazy not to have it when I'm using earlier versions of Office.