Microsoft Word

October 19th, 2012

I’m finishing up a book and the publisher uses Microsoft Word as its editing standard. This makes perfect sense; Word is stuffed with everything that a professional needs to prepare camera-ready copy. But it’s also chock full of stupid mistakes that should make the people at Microsoft blush. One cautionary note: I am using an older version: it’s dated 2008, so it’s four years old. There’s only one Skunky in this list that might be attributable to changes in the OS X.

This being a Microsoft product, it goes without saying that it’s slow as molasses. It takes 15 seconds from the time I double-click on a document until it declares itself ready to go. It’s even slow to quit! It took me 11 seconds from the time I hit Cmd-Q to the moment it disappeared from the dock. Sheesh!

Stealing the cursor
One of the fundamental rules of user interface is that you never usurp the actions of the user. You don’t move the cursor, you don’t alter windows while the user is working, you don’t scroll unless the user asks for it. But what the hell, at Microsoft, user interface standards are for wimps. When my document opens, I scroll down to the page I want to work on. But Microsoft programmers are still loading the document in the background. That’s fine; we really don’t need to wait for the entire document to load. But when the document is fully loaded, they take me back to the top of the document, as if I’m too stupid to know where I want to be. What a Skunkie!

Arbitrarily partial editing
The Word commenting facility is quite powerful, but that doesn’t prevent it from being quite stupid. You can edit a comment in one of two places: in the little comment box on the side of the window, or in a window pane that pops up along the bottom of the window. OK, that can be useful when the comments get so numerous that the side of the window crowds up. When there’s not enough space to edit a comment along the side, Word automatically transfers your work to full-size bottom window pane. Of course, it takes a few seconds, just long enough to be irritating. The fun really starts when you start working on the comment. You can edit it just like any other text, right? Use the mouse to insert the cursor exactly where you want it, hit delete, type new text in – all the standard stuff. EXCEPT for one: if you double-click on a word to select the entire word and hit the DELETE key, nothing happens. It doesn’t delete the word like every other text editor in the universe. It doesn’t do anything. It takes special talent to remove a standard feature from a text editing package, but Microsoft programmers were up to the challenge.

Let’s move on to the paragraph styles popup menu. This is conveniently placed in the huge double-layer toolbar running along the top of the window. But unlike every other menu I’ve seen, this one won’t scroll by the scroll wheel (the little wheel on some mice that allows you to scroll through a document. On modern Macs it was replaced by a tiny trackball, and is now handled by the finger-gestures of the Magic Mouse. The main menus all work as they should, but Microsoft programmers were determined to install an impressive list of Skunkies in Word, and here’s another one they set up. The styles menu is too long to show all its menu items. Why? Because Microsoft arbitrarily decided that this popup window should be only about 300 pixels high. Every other popup menu in the universe follows a user interface standard in which long menus are extended all the way to the bottom of the window (or even the bottom of the screen) to permit maximum utility. But at Microsoft, we don’t need no stinkin’ UI standards: that menu will be 300 pixels high and not one pixel higher. If the user doesn’t like that, tough; we’re Microsoft, and we’re too big to care about users.

It gets worse: not only is the styles menu deliberately kept too short, but it doesn’t scroll properly. The only way to get it to scroll is push the cursor down to the bottom of the menu, and when it scrolls, it does a “chunky” scroll rather than a smooth scroll. That is, the items jump up an entire big step at a time, just jerkily enough to make it hard to read the text as it scrolls. Everybody else learned how to do smooth scrolling decades ago, but Microsoft – well, they’re Microsoft.

Hey, crashing is the hallmark of Microsoft products, and they don’t let you down here. The damn thing crashed on me three times, reproducibly. When I figured out the sequence of actions that was causing the crash, I learned to work around it, but it’s like learning not to put your hands in your pockets because your pants will spread to reveal your underwear.

Doesn’t always scroll
Every piece of software I have will scroll its window when the cursor is over it, regardless of whether the window is activated. This little feature turns out to be handy when you’re bouncing between applications. Can you guess the only program I have that doesn’t have this feature?

Can’t delete paragraph styles
Well, you can certainly delete your own styles, but you can’t delete the Microsoft standard styles. There are seven of these styles and they are permanently burned into Word. This can lead to some confusion. For example, my publisher has a standard set of styles for headings. Word has its own standard set of such styles, called Heading1, Heading2, and Heading3. So my publisher calls its own styles Head1, Head2, and Head3, which initially caused me much confusion. Similar problems arise for other styles.

Obscure User Interface
It wouldn’t be a Microsoft product if it didn’t have some actions that are not easy to figure out. For example, I was looking at all the junk in the toolbars. There are actually three toolbars in the default mode, sporting 37 active areas, mostly icons. One of these is labeled “Word Art”; curious about its content, I unwarily clicked on it, triggering the appearance of a new toolbar. Cute. Once I had perused the toolbar, I was ready to dismiss it – but how? There was no close box, not return icon; even Undo didn’t have any effect. By pure luck I bumbled onto the solution: click on the WordArt label a second time. Right.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the Skunkies in Word; I wasn’t looking for any. These are just Skunkies I came across while using it – and I was using it in a limited fashion. I’m sure that I could have come up with an awesome horde of Skunkies had I actually been hunting for them.