Today's Guest Writer: Brad Weed

Brad Weed is the Product Design Manager of the Office Design Group.

For many of the UI changes we've previewed this month, March really has come in like a lion. And as you watch your favorite team get eliminated in the NCAA tournament from the comforts of your desk, you may also be lamenting the loss of the File menu. We've previewed some big changes in the Ribbon this month that Jensen has covered in considerable depth. But we haven't touched much on what just may be the Cinderella story--the new File menu. I thought I'd spend a few pixels talking about how that change came about.

Filed Away
Poor file menu. Imagine what it must feel like to see all your friends get million dollar makeovers and you're still stuck wearing your favorite pair of MC Hammer pants. So we stepped back and reconsidered what 'file' really means in this new world. If the Ribbon is all about a better arrangement of tools to create information, the file menu is all about the tools necessary to manage that information. Because managing this information is consistent between Office apps, we also realized the file menu was less about the individual app and more about the big 'O' - Office. This led us to the realization that the file menu is becoming the system component of the Office system more and more.

The last release of Office marked the beginning of seriously treating Office as something bigger than just a collection of apps: It now represents a system of programs, servers, and services that work together as an Office System. While this is central to the Office brand and a core tenant in our engineering philosophy, it can sometimes be a tough thing to communicate. So to help bring more synergy between our brand and the design of our products, we're using the Office logo to represent some of the system aspects of Office.

Filing the Sharp Corners
It's a big button, I know. You could fit twenty icons in that space with room left over for Clippy. I suppose the size alone is making it a bit of a lightening rod for criticism. We wanted a control that separated itself from the ribbon in general and the first tab in the ribbon specifically. Again, we really wanted to drive home this separation of tools used to make files and tools used to manage files. Creating a distinct and definitive control does that. A round control in the midst of a Euclidian tapestry can't help but be distinctive. And to challenge Euclid just a tad more, we filed off the square corner of the window as well. There's another reason for that that I can't go into right now. Anyway, utilizing a big round button is a lesson learned from another big round definitive control from Microsoft.

Start Finishing
There's no denying the similarities between our new Office button and the new Windows' Start button in Vista. This is intentional for a number of reasons. First there's the visual continuity between two major releases from Microsoft. While Office doesn't require Vista, we're trying to align as much of our products as realistically and practically possible. Then there's the alignment of Office system related functionality with Window's system functionality. If the Windows Start menu is the place you go to start something in Windows, the File menu is the place you go to start something in Office. Including, starting the process of finishing. That's so weird, isn't it? Start-Exit. Start-Shut Down. It's a little like the ol' Mac drag n' drop interface for ejecting your floppy from the drive. Sure, that's obvious... just drag your floppy to the trash can. Gulp. Talk about a leap of faith!

Vista Start Menu - Click to view full picture

Bridging the Gaffe
And yet, here we are asking our users to take a leap of faith with the new File menu. Like the ribbon, the new Office button takes a little getting used to. I know there's a population of people that hate hearing that over and over again, but it's the reality of the new. It's like buying a new car and the head light switch has moved or changed. Even that takes a while to get used to. (On a related note, and to put things in perspective, most states require at least 30 hours of supervised driving before you're deemed worthy of operating a vehicle... the kind of changes we're talking about take considerably less time to master... even unsupervised.) We've all been trained to throw our cursor to the upper left corner of the screen and look for the word 'File'. When that expectation is not met, there's a brief mild panic and searching ensues. (This is what Don Norman calls the Gulf of Evaluation and Execution) We've observed people in our lab throw their cursor to the corner and experience this short lived apprehension with the new Office button. There they are, trapped in the gulf Norman talks about. But once people click, the gulf is diminished. Once it's been clicked, the gulf is never to be seen again.

Defiling File
Still, getting rid of the File menu is a big deal. As big or bigger than getting rid of all the other menus. I used to think that File, Edit and View were the QWERTY keyboards of GUI. I thought they were so entrenched there was no way to displace them. Well, I'm wrong... again. Like the ribbon, we've altered the way of thinking about and dealing with a rich and deep feature set. And while it may be hard to think of the File menu as being feature rich and deep today, just look at our investments around sharing, storing and collaborating. Soon it will become clear just how rich the system component of Office is becoming. We're really not trying to just 'brand' the products by searing a symbol on it. We truly believe we're providing a new foundation for future investments around the system aspect of the Office system and the symbol that best represents that core idea is our logo.

And, no, there isn't some marketing person putting a gun to my head to write this stuff. I sincerely believe strengthening the association between functionality that unifies the Office system with the brand that promises it is a right and just thing to do. I'm a big believer that brand and product design are interdependent and artificially separating them is doing an injustice to the people paying good money for our products. The experience of using our products shapes the perception of our brand in ways other forms simply cannot and never will.

We, Microsoft, and we, the software industry, have a ways to go in this arena. This release of Office marks huge step in the right direction toward this ideal, but we have a long way to go. And we won't know exactly how far to go or in what direction until we've shipped and are out there for a while. We've done, and continue to do, tons of research around these changes, but nothing compares to the real thing.

Maybe March has come in like a lion, maybe a lamb. There are some who really do see these changes as March Madness and those who long for more. You don't have to look far to see both sides of this argument. But one thing is for sure, we are taking a calculated gamble with this release. But hey, you'll never make it to the big dance if you play it safe.