Yesterday, I mentioned the new contextual spelling feature that is part of Office 2007. Writing the post reminded me of a story from years past...

One of the things we've tried to do from time to time is reduce the number of modal alerts that pop up as part of working with Office. Most people don't spend the time to read the text of message boxes--as a result, unless there's an action that needs to be taken, most people just click OK.

Long before we had the Customer Experience Improvement Program in Office 2003, we relied on data from something called the "instrumented version." This was a special build of Office we gave to a few hundred test subjects to collect a small amount of objective information on how people used the software. It was not nearly as complete or as representative as the CEIP data, but it was better than nothing.

So, when a team was tasked with reducing the number of alerts, they developed a magic formula for deciding which alerts to target: look for the most frequently-appearing alerts (based on the data) which contained only an OK button. Because we know that any alert with just an OK button is simply informative, and we know that most people don't read the text of alerts, knocking just the first 10 or 20 off the list held the promise of reducing the number of dumb alerts seen by Office users by billions and billions.

Dutifully, the team removed these seemingly useless alerts. The very top one on the list seemed like an absolute slam-dunk to remove: "The spelling check is complete." It's a totally unactionable alert--just an extra click people have to do every time they check their spelling. A perfect example of a useless, intrusive dialog box, interrupting your work and getting in your way. Bad design. Right?

Within hours, the complaints started to roll in. Within days, the complaints became deafening from all corners. It wasn't long before the alert was put right back in the product.

Why? People who were spell checking their document manually had no idea when the process was complete. If you've grown up expecting a dialog box to come up once all of the spelling errors are corrected, and now the software just sits there silently--well, it’s no wonder people thought the program was just broken. Or very, very slow.

Spell check is one of those great features that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning is you clicking the spell check button. The middle is the computer conversing with you about potential misspelled words and giving you an opportunity to fix them. And the end is the computer telling you that the process is complete.

It’s a truly collaborative, uncomplicated interaction between user and computer. The "spelling check is complete" alert is a form of exactly what dialog boxes are named for: dialogue. The computer telling you that it’s finished rounds out and completes the process. It's no different from a checker at a grocery store saying "Here's your receipt, thank you for shopping at Thriftway." It’s a very human way of ending a transaction.

I guess the meta point here is that it's hard to do interaction design by formula. Not many great works of art are achieved through Paint By Numbers.