It may seem based on my writing that the ideas behind the Office 12 user interface kind of popped out of the sky and or that we went with the first things that came to mind.

In reality, many people contribute creative ideas, and deciding which one is the best is no easy task. We debate and discuss and weigh the details, and in the end we have to make a decision.

Sometimes, especially in the early stages, we bet on the wrong idea. Hopefully we catch many of them through the testing of early prototypes, but occasionally it's not until something is in the build and we use it for a while do we realize that it's totally wrong. It's our job to find and fix those mistakes.

One of the mistakes in Beta 1 of Office 12 is something called "Expert Mode." I haven't written about Expert Mode yet because I've known we were going to change the design for some time and I wanted to wait until we had settled on the replacement design so that I could relate the entire story. I know there are those on the team cringing right now even seeing the words "Expert Mode" on the screen...

Here's the background: there are many, many settings in Office. Organized into rows and rows of tabs in Office 2003, Word alone has hundreds of options, many of them obscure.

The result of having so many options is that most people never change any of them. They open the dialog box, shudder in fear, and then close it. Yet, many top feature requests are things already in Options. ("I want to change my default font. I want to always save in this format. I want to change the name used to mark comments." etc.)

These useful options, which I call "user preferences" were mixed up with many, many advanced settings which made the preferences hard to find.

(How many of you regularly change "Suppress extra line spacing the way WordPerfect 5.x does" or "Don't expand character spaces on a line that ends with SHIFT-RETURN"?)

Our solution? A feature called "Expert Mode." When you opened up the new Options screen, only the useful, understandable options were present. The idea was that people would find and set their preferences and never need to be exposed to the rough underbelly of the product. If you really needed an advanced setting, you could find an obscure checkbox to turn on "Expert Mode", at which point a bunch of extra settings would show up in place and in green (to show you that they appeared.)

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. (Sounds like at least a distant cousin of Personalized Menus, doesn't it?)

If you never, ever, ever needed anything except for the things we designated as "preferences", the design worked great. You never saw Expert Mode, and you'd have a very clean and easy-to-use Options experience.

On the other hand, if you need even one Expert Mode setting even once, your user experience is destroyed. First, you have to find the checkbox to turn on Expert Mode (and we didn't make it easy.) Second, as soon as you do, every section of Options is filled up with extra settings. They show up in-place, meaning that there's not even anywhere to go scan for the ones that newly showed up. Third, no one is ever going to do the extra click to turn Expert Mode off again--so either we "auto" turn it off, or the user is stuck with a confusing mishmash of advanced settings mixed in with the more commonly changed settings forever.

Despite its shortcomings, we thought the design would work and we put it into the product; in fact, it's there in Beta 1. Unfortunately, we were wrong..

It soon became abundantly clear that we had made a mistake.

We couldn't get the classification of Expert Mode right; more people than we thought needed one or two Expert Mode settings and nearly all of them required assistance to get Expert Mode turned on. Once Expert Mode was activated, even if they only needed to change something once, the experience degraded to be not much better than Office 2003.

So, after Beta 1 we demoted Expert Mode to the design scrapheap. Instead, we gathered together the most commonly sought-after user preferences and put them on a simple, straightforward first page. Advanced settings which don't fit cleanly into a top-level category are grouped together into an easily-scrolled Advanced section, with group headers helping to organize the flow.

The advantages of this design: a clean layout and organization for user preferences. An easily browsable, single list for more advanced application settings. Looking for one of these doesn't degrade the Options experience and doesn't require a checkbox to activate. And best, like the Ribbon, there's no "auto" behavior--everything has a clear, browsable home that remains the same session to session.

I'll write in detail about the new Options in a future post, complete with screenshots. There are some pretty nifty improvements.