Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

When Good Metaphors Go Bad.

The decline of Word since 97 has been raised in a few threads lately, so I've been giving it some thought.

Word did rather a good job of being useful to both the novice and the power user.

A novice could produce documents of use to themselves by means of the keyboard and around 5 icons. Save, load, bold and a few others.

The power user would useful other features, especially styles.

With styles you can separate presentation for content, rather like XML and XSLT.  You can mark a piece of text as being Heading 1, 2 or 3 and then build and outline or table of contents from that.
If the user disciplines themselves, and know what they are doing then the styles are of great use.  However, the majority of users do not know how to use styles properly.
So what the architects of Word decided was that the majority of users were failing to use Word properly.  They must have decided that the users should be made to do what was good for them, the user must use styles whether they like it or not.
Which now leads us to the unhappy condition of Word.  If I select a line of text and increase the font size Word decides that what I really should have done was made the text a Heading.  If I choose to make a list bulleted, then Word decides that I really meant to shoose a bulleted-list style.

What the application is trying to do is to force the systems underlying metaphor onto me.  To use Word properly I must use styles.  If I am not using styles then I am a bad user in needs to be taught the proper way.
Has it never occured to the people at Microsoft that perhaps the problem with Styles is that the metaphor is not quite right.  The reason users fail to use Styles is because they just don't make sense to the average person.

Instead of trying to make users work proberly for Word, shouldn't they have been concentrating on making Word work properly for the user?

The fact that these autocorrect can be turned off in Word is not what I'm talking about here.  That discussion has already taken place.

What I am talking about is how a good and useful metaphor can go bad.  Once it is seen as the one true way rather than one way of looking at a problem then it becomes a hinderance rather than a help.

Ged Byrne
Monday, November 24, 2003

Hmm. I use Word for more than 8 years. I never used styles for 7.999 years, I just learned it 2 weeks ago.

And it's cool.

Before that I always formatted the text manually (apply little bold here, scale this font a little bit, add more space here).

Then I had to change formatting of a 70 page document, and I went mad. Changing all manual formatting is a pain in the ass.

So I decided to start learning the features of Word after 8 years. I practiced for 1-1.5 days, learn how Word use styles, how paragraph works, blabla.

Now I understand why Word "screw up" formatting. There are only a few basic rules you should follow in order to not screw up formatting.

.... in reality I have nothing to say with this ...

Monday, November 24, 2003

Hmmm... before I started using Word, I was an avid user of FrameMaker.

Styles were the obvious way to go, for someone coming from FrameMaker.

Now, if only MS could make their illustration tool as nice as FrameMaker's, and their software just as robust, it will hit the spot.

As it is, FrameMaker rules.

David Jones
Monday, November 24, 2003

Alice - take note.

n/a - Hmm. I use Word for more than 8 years. I never used styles for 7.999 years, I just learned it 2 weeks ago.  And it's cool.

Users will learn when THEY want to.

Code it and they will come.  Eventually.

Monday, November 24, 2003

This is exactly my point.  Styles are great, and I use them a lot.  However, they only work when applied in a specific, intelligent way.

It has been said that one of Words big problems is that it is a Word Processor that is trying to be a Desktop Publisher.  This is a fair comment, but Word used to handle it quite well.

The problem is that the people behind Word got too blinded by Words DTP aspirations, so they now try to make Word a Desk Top Publisher even when you are trying to use it as a Word Processor.

So, as I say, styles serve as an excellent foundation for a DTP, and a useful feature within WP.  The metaphor is not well suited as a fundamental to Word because it interferes with the overriding Typewriter metaphor.

Ged Byrne
Monday, November 24, 2003

I wonder how many people are happy with WordPad.

No spell check or word count, but does basic formatting, bullets, graphics etc.

Can't complain about the price...

Monday, November 24, 2003

>>I wonder how many people are happy with WordPad.

It doesn't matter if it meets their needs (and it probably does, for most users), it's how it's perceived.

Most people will demand to have Word since they don't want to be seen using a 'lesser' product. Just try telling a user that they don't need Word and that WordPad would be enough for their needs...

Even the previous 'free' program - Write, would still satisify the needs of most users. WordPad has the advantage of being able to open most Word documents, too.

Monday, November 24, 2003

The big feature missing from Wordpad is Tables.

Users really do like to make tables.

Ged Byrne
Monday, November 24, 2003

"now try to make Word a Desk Top Publisher even when you are trying to use it as a Word Processor"

This is a good insight Ged, I think that is what MS is aspiring to. The problem is that it can't take over the market until it has tools for color separations and dyes and saturation levels and text flow through disconnected polygons and publish and subscribe IAC with photoshop and leading and text on curve and all that stuff, at which point it will be totally unusable as a word processor. These two applications are different enough that they should not be combined in one program.

Also, 98% of the market that is willing to pay wants a word processor. Only 1% wants a publishing-quality page layout program, and they tend to favor other programs.

I haven't been able to figure out the latest Office version and have reverted to using 97 on my pentium.

Dennis Atkins
Monday, November 24, 2003

"Users really do like to make tables." -- Yeah, if only they knew about tables...

Regular user:

'Advanced' user:
foo TAB bar

Duncan Smart
Monday, November 24, 2003


That's so true. It amazes me how it's easier and faster to lay out tables on my old electric typewriter than it is to lay out tables in Word, or any other word processor for that matter. I still use this typewriter for those times when I just want to write a letter quickly. Even have a box of carbon paper in the drawer here to make myself a duplicate for the file.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Duncan not Justin. Sorry!

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Ummm, speaking as someone that learned how to type on manual typewriters and cut stencils where 0% error was the only acceptable standard (Snow pak hah!), I have to say I'd rather use Word or almost anything to layout a document these days.

Simon Lucy
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Tables.  Yeah, you're right.  People like tables.

Importing pictures is a pain too.  Drag & drop works, but a lot of peole never figure it out.  Especially if you've maximised all of your apps.

I still reckon it's a case of WordPad being seen as a lesser product.  Either that or it's buried too far down in the menus.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

> Especially if you've maximised all of your apps.

SPEAKING of which - am I the only one who has noticed that the bigger monitors get, the more screen realestate every application demands for useless features that don't need to occupy screen space? ANd the trend in OS's is bad as well -- look at that huge object taking over the screen in longhorn. I don't like this.

We need a catchy phrase for this: "Footprint Bloat", anyone?

Tony Chang
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

What I'm saying is that I have a constant (small) amount of my screen free at any time and it's never two pages, even though my current screen is more than four times larger in pixels that it was only a few years ago. If you want two pages open at a time, you have to buy two monitors to see them!

Tony Chang
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Word Pad really sucks.

It's the genuine what you see isn't what you get Word Processor.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, November 26, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home