One topic that has come up frequently in our private beta newsgroups as well as here in blog comments from time to time is the issue of customization.

As with every component of the Office 2007 user interface redesign, we put a lot of thought into how much customization to provide; today I'm going to try to walk you through our thought process.

Many of you have been passionate in conveying feedback that you wish the UI had absolute customizability. As in my article on the size of the Ribbon, I'm going to lay the facts out on the table and hopefully it will help you to at least understand the rationale behind the decisions we made (even if you wish we had made different ones.)

What is Customization?

There are many aspects to customization in a software user interface. The ability to change the visual appearance, to change preferences, and to turn pieces of the UI on or off are all aspects of customization.

Most frequently among power users, the term "customization" is used to represent the ability certain programs have to add, remove, and relocate commands within the UI.

The History of Customization in Office

Command Bars, introduced in Office 97, were kind of a nirvana of customization capabilities. With Command Bars, you could change virtually anything imaginable within the organization of the menus and toolbars: create new ones, move buttons from toolbars to menus and back, use a built-in icon editor to directly edit the pixels of the icons, etc.

Unfortunately, this flexibility came at a price in terms of the complexity of Command Bars and the kinds of layouts and controls it could support. One of the reasons that many of the prior attempts to simplify the UI were unsuccessful was that any feature had to work within this ultra-customizable framework where you could never predict where a control might live or how it might be presented to the user.

There were downsides for normal users as well. When we go on site visits to watch people use Office 97-2003 in their place of business, we often find that Office has been ravaged by the effects of accidental customization.

In fact, one of the most frequent questions we are asked by people during on-site usability research is: "How can I get the menus back to the top of the window?"

Because of the ultimate flexibility of Command Bars, you can make one small misplaced click and suddenly the menu bar is docked to the left side of the screen or floating in space. Of course, this could have been improved somewhat by some sensible measures such as locking the UI by default, but it does illustrate the different ways a power user and a more typical user think about the same feature.

How Many People Customize?

When we started designing the Office 2007 user interface, one of the first and frequent discussions we had was: "what is the right kind of customization to include in the UI?"

We started collecting research by talking to some of our expert users within large companies, who in several cases assured us that "everyone" customizes their UI to optimize it for the most efficient use possible and, furthermore, that any new UI needed to be at least as customizable as Command Bars (preferably even more.)

An interesting perspective, but it can be dangerous to base decisions on just a few opinions (especially when the first word in the opinion is "everyone.")

The next step was to see what was actually happening in the real world: were people customizing as much we assumed?

Given that we already had one of the most customizable user interfaces of all-time in Office 2003, looking through the real-world data could help us to confirm objectively how many people were customizing their UI and exactly how they were customizing it.

Looking across a hundred million or so people using Office 2003, here's what we found:

  • In fewer than 2% of sessions, the program was running with customized command bars.

  • Of the 2% of sessions with customizations present, 85% included customization of four or fewer commands.

Needless to say, we were surprised, but when we looked at the statistics in detail, this data matched that which had been collected from other sources and in historical research.

It breaks down like this: in ~1.9% of sessions, buttons have been added, removed, or moved between toolbars and menus. (Changing the docking position or location of an entire toolbar is not counted as a customization. Buttons added by add-ins or templates are also not counted.)

Of the customized sessions, around 85% of them had only what we'd call minor customizations: four or fewer buttons. Most of these are added toolbar buttons, either from the command well or from a toolbar people don't want to keep up all the time. And even within these 85% of 2% of sessions, there are patterns that emerge.

The most popular single customization? Removing the "Read" button from the Standard toolbar in Word.

The PowerPoint team helped by collecting hundreds of screenshots of heavily-customized versions of PowerPoint from professional slide designers. It turns out that many of the same customizations are widespread among these users, such as adding Send to Back as a top-level command so that it's not buried four-levels deep in the Drawing toolbar.

Finding so many patterns in the customizations was a heartening revelation, because it implied that if we got enough of the details of the command organization right based on these common customizations, many fewer customizations might be necessary.

Furthermore, because Office 2003 is still relatively new, it is deployed disproportionately among power users--the very people who most likely to customize. In all of our analyses, we try to be aware that the raw statistical data skews slightly towards early-adopting power users. This is probably much less true today than it was more than two years ago when we first compiled customization statistics.

(One metric that causes us to believe that the Office 2003 data slightly skews towards power users even today: Every month, the average screen resolution of people using Office 2003 decreases as more of the core installed base adopts it.)

Using the Data to Drive the Design

Even though Microsoft is a big company, we don't have unlimited design or development resources. Given how ambitious our plans were for reinventing the Office user interface, we had to be realistic and optimize for the most common scenarios first.

So, we took a pragmatic approach and decided to focus on the 99.7% case: people who don't take advantage of customization or only use it to customize four or fewer commands. Out of this goal was born the Quick Access Toolbar.

The Quick Access Toolbar is designed to make it easy to add controls, galleries, and groups from anywhere in the Ribbon: just right-click the thing you want to add and choose "Add to Quick Access Toolbar" from the context menu. We designed the customization model to be efficient but with the goal of "zero customization complexity"; it would be unacceptable for customization to cause the user interface to degrade as it did so often with Command Bars.

Adding controls to a persistent toolbar allows people to have one-click access to the features they choose from anywhere in the product, and can help eliminate problematic command loops as well.

We also paid close attention to common customizations in Office 2003, making sure that commands are organized together for maximum efficiency. This helps to further reduce the need for customization.

Command Location Customization in Office 2007

What command location customizations are supported in Office 2007?

Here's a list of the major capabilities:

  • Add any control in the Ribbon to the Quick Access Toolbar
  • Add an entire Ribbon group to the Quick Access Toolbar as a single icon
  • Add a gallery to the Quick Access Toolbar
  • Add individual menu items to the Quick Access Toolbar
  • Add any command from the command well to the Quick Access Toolbar
  • Add macros to the Quick Access Toolbar and choose an icon and label for them
  • Add separators to help organize the Quick Access Toolbar
  • Reorder controls within the Quick Access Toolbar
  • Full-width Quick Access Toolbar mode below the Ribbon
  • Auto-assigned keyboard shortcuts given to customized Quick Access Toolbar commands
  • Customize the content of many galleries (especially in Word)
  • Customization based on use of many galleries (Recent Documents, Margins, Shapes, Themes, etc.)
  • Complete customization of status bar
  • Customize the Ribbon via XML in document template
  • Use RibbonX XML to customize Ribbon content through a COM Add-in

As you can see, there's quite a lot of customization available in the Office 2007 UI. The laser focus on the Quick Access Toolbar is evident as a result of mapping the design of the product to real-world use.

That said, the last two items on the list will be of interest for expert users who are craving more control over customizing Ribbon content. RibbonX, which has been written about in this space many times, provides an XML interface for describing Ribbon content, including repurposing built-in controls and groups.

You can build custom tabs and groups in RibbonX already; it's just a matter of loading the XML into the program you're using. There are a few ways to do this, including saving the XML into your default document template.

Undoubtedly, people will write tools to help take the XML coding out of using RibbonX to customize Ribbon content. Patrick Schmid has illustrated many of the techniques necessary to make this work on his blog. We've added some additional capabilities to the object model post-Beta 2 that will help these tools along, such as the ability to query for the icon of a command or to execute it directly from code.

Beta Feedback

Nevertheless, throughout the beta cycle we've received requests for additional customization capabilities. There have been discussions about the desire for it in private beta newsgroups, and people have posted comments on the topic here as well. One reader in particular has graced me with at least five personal flame-mails, complete with speculation about my ancestry and theories about the difficulty I will have finding future employment once I've been fired.

If we really optimized for the 99.7% case (98% + (85% of 2%)), why are we hearing so much about this issue?

Because 0.3% of the 450 million paid Office customers still represents 1.35 million people.

And given the strong correlation between expert users and customization, one would expect that these 0.3% are precisely those who download early betas, participate in private beta programs, visit enthusiast web sites, read technical blogs, and generally are interested in and participate in the software development process.

On the other hand, in our long-term broad deployments of Office 2007 Beta 1, Beta 1 Technical Refresh, and now Beta 2 at customer sites, customization has not been a particularly hot issue--nor has it been in Send a Smile feedback.

I have definitely heard those of you who spend the time and effort necessary to build totally custom menus and toolbars in Office 2003, and I hope that a combination of the Quick Access Toolbar and RibbonX-based customization will provide you with a similar level of flexibility in Office 2007, albeit using different technologies.

Addressing Feedback

In a way, all of this attention around customization is a bit like a TV show getting canceled.

Even the least successful network shows attract a lot of viewers in absolute terms--just not relative to the opportunity cost of keeping them on the air. Financially, it doesn't make sense for a network like NBC to keep around an underwatched sitcom like "Joey," but if you're one of the people who like "Joey" it doesn't sting any less when it's canceled. The fact that you're in a small minority doesn't console you.

In other words, the decisions we made around customization in Office 2007 weren't based on absolutes ("no one should be allowed to customize the Ribbon") but instead based on pragmatic use of resources ("let's start by getting the core aspects of the design right for everyone's benefit.")

Is additional customization against the design philosophy of the Ribbon? No, provided that we could add it in such a way that it added no additional complexity for the vast majority of people who aren't interested in it.

Within our resource and schedule constraints, we've acted on the expert user feedback by continuing to add additional customization throughout the beta cycle.

In Beta 1, we added the ability to move the Quick Access Toolbar below the Ribbon to allow many more controls to be added to it. In Beta 1 Technical Refresh, we introduced the ability to add whole groups to the QAT, the ability to add galleries to the QAT, separators, and new command well functionality. In Beta 2, we added the ability to assign custom keyboard shortcuts by adding controls to the QAT.

Are there other customization features we'd like to add eventually? Of course. One example is the ability to customize the contents of the Mini Toolbar--this was an affordance we included in the original spec, but ultimately didn't get done for Office 2007. In future versions, could I imagine adding built-in facilities for customizing Ribbon content? Yes, I could imagine it.

At the same time, I honestly believe that Office 2007 as it stands will be a great user experience for people of all skill levels. If you're a power user (as I am), there's a lot we designed just for you, and even more coming post-Beta 2.

The fundamental principles and constructs of the new UI--galleries, Ribbon layout and command organization, Live Preview, Contextual Tabs, the Mini Toolbar, and all the rest--have been designed to benefit everyone who uses Office, power users and novices alike.

Other Aspects of Customization

A different kind of customization people ask about occasionally is the ability to relocate certain parts of the user interface. The two biggest feature requests in this area are for a vertical version of the Ribbon (to take advantage of widescreen monitors especially in Word) and the ability to "float" and drag around certain parts of the UI.

Some day in the not-too-distant future, I plan to write a post about why we built a horizontal version of the Ribbon instead of a vertical one. There are several compelling reasons, but needless to say we looked at prototypes of both aspect ratios in great detail before making a decision.

Could I imagine a hypothetical version of the Ribbon designed to dock to the side of the screen instead of the top? Of course. Will we build it in a future version? Nothing's for sure, but if it's the right thing for the UI platform moving forward, we'll definitely consider it.

The story with floating UI is similar. Floating toolbars in Office 97-2003 caused a lot of problems, primarily because they were forced on people as the primary means of accessing many features. As a result, toolbars were always popping up over top of what people were working on, needing to be dragged out of the way, or mistakenly docking to the side of the screen.

Our design mantra for Office 2007 was that default feature access wouldn't rely on floating things popping up on top of the document; the UI would be in a single, consolidated, consistent place.

But there are a few repetitive action scenarios in which it would be useful to be able to float UI just to make it closer to the area of the document you're working in. While the data shows that the vast majority of people don't take advantage of this functionality in current versions of Office, we've definitely prototyped a more expert mode in which you could "tear off" groups from the Ribbon or the Quick Access Toolbar, or even a whole tab of the Ribbon to move to a secondary monitor.

Again, were we to build such a feature in a future version, it would be in a way that had no possibility of accidental misuse, and in a way that added minimal complexity to mainline cases.

Last but not least, there's always a lively discussion to be had around choosing a visual appearance for any piece of software.

Unlike in past versions of Office, we allow you to choose your color scheme directly in Office 2007. You can change between the three schemes from the first page of the Options dialog box. People always want more color choices, but I hope with the addition of the third scheme in the final product that most everyone will be able to find a look for the product they're happy with.

Summary

As with everything in the Office 2007 user interface redesign, we informed the design both by analyzing the usage data and then by adding a sprinkling of anecdotal feedback. We focused first on the most common scenarios which benefit the broadest set of customers. Then we've used the feedback from the beta process to drive iterative improvements to the design to help satisfy more of the specialized uses of the product.

In the next version of Office, we will undoubtedly look at all of the feedback we get on the completed product (which, as more people use it, will be more fully representative of the entire user base) and decide how to continue to move the UI platform forward.

One goal won't change however: to empower people to do great work in Office as easily as possible.