Improving Word's outlining feature

22 Jul 2006 - 5:22pm
8 years ago
1 reply
241 reads
jbellis
2005

Peter,
What would you do to improve Word's outlining feature?
(First, I'll be interested to find out if everyone means the same thing when
they refer to Word's "outlining feature.")
Thanks, Jack

----- Original Message -----
From: "Peter Bagnall" <pete at surfaceeffect.com>
Subject: Re: [IxDA Discuss] motivating new learning

> > I'll give a practical example: an experienced colleague, whose work I
> > often edit, can't properly outline in Microsoft Word.
>
> So the problem is not about learning new stuff, he's already using the
> outlining feature. It's that he's not understanding how the feature
> works. That suggests very heavily to me that that feature is badly
> designed. Having used it myself, it could use some improvement.

Comments

24 Jul 2006 - 11:13am
Peter Bagnall
2003

Damn, I was hoping you weren't going to ask that!!

I should say before I get into this, I've not talked to any potential
users about this, so this is purely off the top of my head, so if
anyone has looked into this rigourously then they probably have a
better view on it than I do. This is half baked in other words ;-)

First off, the outlining feature, at least the thing I'm talking
about is the view which lets you work on a documents structure - by
hiding content and just looking at headings. This is rather similar
to "folding" in many text editors.

There are several problems with it. It's conceptually quite difficult
for many people. It relies on an understanding of a document as a
nested structure, of one large document made up of subsections, which
in turn are made up of smaller subsections and so on. A hierarchy in
other words, and we know how well they're understood! It also, so
some extent relies on an understanding of semantic markup, that is
word needs to understand that this part of the doc is a subheading,
whereas this part is body text that "belongs" to that subheading, and
so on.

I've noticed many users just don't understand this concept. Lots of
people don't do headings by using the "style" feature, which gives
Word some semantic information, they just change the font, make it
bigger, bold etc so that it looks right. Of course this completely
trashes the outline since it provides no semantic information at all.
In fact I've just received a document from a colleague which has no
semantic information at all. I filter it just to show headings and
the whole document just vanished! Show body text - oh, there it is!
The headings have just been bolded.

So one thing I might do to help the outlining feature is be much more
forceful in guiding people away from randomly changing the fonts in
their doc and guide them towards using the styles instead. Surely
this is what a word processor should be doing?! Word suffers greatly
from doing too much document layout. You shouldn't be worrying about
document layout while you're writing - that's a production step for
later which perhaps ought to have a dedicated tool (or sub-tool). Of
course this is a pretty fundamental change to Word's model, which is
why I say Word does a bad job of outlining because it presents itself
most of the time as a layout tool.

Just to make matters worse, the icons on the toolbar for the outline
mode are pretty opaque.

I don't intend to redesign it just at the minute though, it's not a
trivial job, and if I attempted to do so in an email I wouldn't do it
justice (and I'd make a fool of myself to boot!). But I think I've
indicated the direction I'd head in.

Cheers
--Pete

On 22 Jul 2006, at 23:22, jackbellis wrote:

> [Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted
> material.]
>
> Peter,
> What would you do to improve Word's outlining feature?
> (First, I'll be interested to find out if everyone means the same
> thing when
> they refer to Word's "outlining feature.")
> Thanks, Jack
>
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Peter Bagnall" <pete at surfaceeffect.com>
> Subject: Re: [IxDA Discuss] motivating new learning
>
>>> I'll give a practical example: an experienced colleague, whose
>>> work I
>>> often edit, can't properly outline in Microsoft Word.
>>
>> So the problem is not about learning new stuff, he's already using
>> the
>> outlining feature. It's that he's not understanding how the feature
>> works. That suggests very heavily to me that that feature is badly
>> designed. Having used it myself, it could use some improvement.
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----------------------------------------------------------
Nothing is so hard for those who abound in riches as to
conceive how others can be in want.
- Jonathan Swift, 1667 - 1745

Peter Bagnall - http://people.surfaceeffect.com/pete/

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