Posey's Tips & Tricks

Taking Stock of Microsoft's Office 365 UX Updates

It might be easy to dismiss Microsoft's planned Office 365 changes as purely cosmetic, but as Brien argues, the upcoming redesign goes way past skin-deep.

Microsoft recently announced that it is making some updates to the user experience inside of Office. Although the improvements are mostly cosmetic, there were a few things about the announcement that caught my attention.

For starters, Microsoft brought the Fluent design system to Office. In case you are not familiar with the Fluent design, it might best be described as a template for building GUI interfaces that conform to Microsoft's latest style elements. The Fluent design includes, for example, animations and shadowing, but tends to make subtle use of these elements.

However, the feature redesigns that are getting the most attention are those that Microsoft is making to the Office ribbon. Going forward, the ribbon is going to be greatly simplified, exposing only the most commonly used Office features. Those who use the more advanced features, however, will be able to expand the ribbon and access all of the interface items that they currently have access to.

While it is tempting to dismiss the changes to the ribbon as being little more than just another cosmetic makeover for Office, I think that the ribbon redesign is going to be well-received.

Back around the time of Office 2013, Microsoft created a version of Office that was optimized for touch-screen devices. Unfortunately, I can't remember if this was the Windows Store version, the version bundled with Windows RT, a Web app, or perhaps something else. That isn't important, though. What is important was that although not nearly as full-featured as the "normal" version of Office, the touch-friendly version was far easier to use. Microsoft took the most popular Office features and exposed them through a ribbon that had been greatly simplified.

I recall that particular version of Office being really efficient to work in, even if it did not include all of the features that were included with the full desktop version of Office.

This is exactly what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with the newly redesigned Office interface. Most people only use a handful of Office features on a regular basis. Hence, Microsoft is redesigning the ribbon to expose the features that everyone uses, while hiding the remaining features. It should make the interface far less cluttered.

More importantly, the redesign may make Office easier to use on devices with smaller screens. Office 2016 is designed so that if the window is not displayed at full-screen, or if it is displayed on a low-resolution monitor, items on the ribbon are hidden or rearranged to accommodate the reduced resolution. Having a simplified ribbon to begin with could make for a much more consistent Office experience across devices.

Not all of the changes that Microsoft is bringing to Office are cosmetic, however. Microsoft is also changing the way that search works in Office. While you have long been able to enter search queries into Office applications such as Outlook, Microsoft is going to be introducing something that it calls "Zero Query Search."

Zero Query Search is exactly what it sounds like. It is a search that does not require you to tell Office what it is that you are looking for. Admittedly, this sounds at least a little bit odd, but in practice I think that Microsoft's approach works really well.

Zero Query Search is not designed as a replacement for the searches that you are probably already doing. Instead, it is designed to simplify some very specific searches. The basic idea is that an underlying AI engine keeps an eye on what you have been working on lately. If you click on the search box, then there is a high probability that whatever you are about to search for has something to do with your most recent activities. As such, an interface that is powered by Microsoft Graph displays your recent searches, people that you have been communicating with recently, and upcoming appointments.

These results are presented as search suggestions that appear just below the search box. If a suggestion meets your needs, then you can use the suggestion as a shortcut and just click on it. If, on the other hand, the suggestions do not work for you, then you can always perform a search in the usual way.

I have to admit that I have a bad habit of dismissing updates that seem like cosmetic fluff. Even though the soon-to-be-released Office 365 updates are mostly cosmetic, I think that they will legitimately improve the Office experience.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site at.

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