Change for the sake of change

In early releases of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0, user interface (UI) changes began to appear that defaulted to a new single-click action behavior. Later betas and the final version of IE 4.0 offered single-click behavior as an option but went back to the previous double-click behavior as the default. How did Microsoft decide that changing to single-click behavior was a good idea in the first place?

Microsoft cites ease of use as the reason behind much of the interface change and behavior modification in the Windows products through the past few evolutionary stages. Microsoft asserts that the company's thorough usability testing indicates that the changes to Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 9x have made the products easier to learn and use. Although the changes might have improved Windows' usability, many of the UI changes seem gratuitous. How many users were banging down Microsoft's door demanding that title bars have gradient colors and that menus expand and contract, rather than simply appear?

Working with the Office 2000 and Windows 2000 (Win2K) betas has given me the opportunity to examine the latest round of UI changes. All I can say is that although these changes might make the products easier to learn, they require experienced users to change work habits. I don't believe product behavior modifications that require users to change their work habits are a good thing, especially given the Office product's penetration in the workplace. Even if the adjustment period for an experienced user is only a week or two per application, that time adds up to a huge amount of lost productivity for no apparent added value.

Most of the Office 2000 UI changes are the result of a technology called IntelliMenus. The predecessor of IntelliMenus is the IntelliSense option that Microsoft includes in its development tool products (e.g., Visual Studio and its individual components). IntelliSense is basically a smart auto-complete feature. When you begin to type a word that IntelliSense recognizes as an object in the language or tool you're using, a box pops up that includes all the options for that object and provides the correct structure and syntax for the command. IntelliSense is a great feature because it helps developers avoid syntax and structure errors. I find the seamless pop-up examples helpful, and I've never heard anyone say anything bad about IntelliSense.

The concept behind IntelliMenus seems sound. Users initially see only the menu options that they use most commonly. These commands appear automatically, which eliminates the need to hunt through menus to find them. Clicking a little chevron at the bottom of the selected menu, double-clicking the menu name, or simply holding the menu open for about 5 seconds without making a selection lets you access the entire command menu. You can disable the IntelliMenu feature across the Office suite from the Tools/Customize menu option.

The IntelliMenu feature has quite a few odd behaviors. For example, the default choices on Word's File menu don't include the Print Preview command. All the Word users I asked told me they used the Print Preview command often. Yet the designers decided to exclude Print Preview from the default options. Although the menu adds Print Preview after you use it the first time, its omission from the default choices suggests shortsightedness.

IntelliMenus add new commands as menu options each time you use a feature that you haven't previously used. On the surface, adding only necessary commands sounds OK, because many menu options are the result of 10 years' worth of feature bloat. Reducing the number of options, which should simplify the use of menus, is a good idea. But if you hide menu options from users, in most cases you're also hiding those features. How many new users will disable the IntelliMenu feature or take the time to examine the features that the Office suite offers? Part of my learning process—and this is true for other longtime users I've talked to—is the constant exposure to the list of commands that appears when I open any menu. I might not have a need for a given feature when I open that menu, but eventually I learn the contents of every menu, even commands that I rarely or never use. And when the time comes to use those commands, I know where the commands are.

Another problem with the IntelliMenu feature is that the location of menu commands appears to change. IntelliMenu's habit of adding new commands to the menu as you use them causes this change in appearance. I often use common menu items without actually reading them, even when I click a command with a mouse. After all, if the command I want is always the third option on the menu, why should I stop to read it? With IntelliMenus, the command you want to use might no longer be the third option on the list, but the fourth or fifth. This movement forces you to pay more attention to the interface, a situation that doesn't improve productivity.

IntelliMenus also change the behavior of the toolbars. Here's what happened to me. Because I spend most of my time working on a high-resolution (1600 X 1200) screen, I always keep all the toolbars visible. The first time I used Office 2000 on my notebook (with an 800 X 600 display), I discovered that if the full toolbars weren't displayed, the IntelliMenu technology moved the buttons on the visible toolbars. The buttons change places and might move off the screen, depending on when and how you use them. Suppose you have eight buttons that you use most often on a specific toolbar, and your screen real estate lets you display only four buttons. The first time you use a button that isn't visible, one of your most-used buttons will slip off the screen. Disappearing buttons can be irritating when you're using an application. Next thing you know, the UI will have Motif-like pushpins to lock the buttons in place.

I've been giving IntelliMenus a reasonable chance to impress me. I spend a lot of time in Word and a moderate amount of time in Excel. I've let the menus have control, and after using IntelliMenus continuously for about 4 months, I find them only moderately annoying. IntelliMenus are more annoying when I use PowerPoint because I rarely use PowerPoint and I really need the full menus to make the user experience a good one. Of course, I can turn IntelliMenus off, but doing so disables IntelliMenus across the entire Office suite, not just in the active application. And because I'm trying to use IntelliMenus in other applications, I don't disable them. Yes, I could turn off IntelliMenus, then turn them back on—but if the goal of IntelliMenus is to simplify life, then turning them off and on doesn't make sense from a design perspective.

Someone, or a group of someones, has decided that this movable feast of menu options is something users want, and they've gone so far as to add IntelliMenus to the basic NT Explorer UI of Win2K. No longer will users with dozens of applications installed on their system have to worry about those applications scrolling off the top and bottom of their displays. IntelliMenus eliminate the need for users to learn how to manipulate the interface and organize applications into related groups to limit the number of items at any level of the display, and the need to (heaven forbid) uninstall some of the applications they never use. With IntelliMenus, the UI will display only the applications users most often use. In contrast, if an application installs multiple icons in the Start menu's Programs group, the UI will display parts of the application that a user will never use.

The confusion resulting from missing applications and additional application parts in Explorer should make for some interesting tech support phone calls. Before long, every support call will start the same way: "Go to menu X, and disable option Y. Now let's address your problem." I'd really like to know who decided that IntelliMenus are a good idea.