Tuesday, 3 July 2007

The moving Microsoft standard

When I was first brought into my company to port the software from Unix to Windows, Windows 95 was the latest OS and Microsoft were very proud of it. Although I didn't read any official literature from them at the time, I was already aware from my own use of Windows that there were certain standards to be maintained. Not standards as in quality (heaven forbid), but standards as in consistency. But then, I guess we know Microsoft's record on following the standard.

(Actually I just want to point out that I'm not a died-in-the-wool Microsoft basher, I actually think they have produced some outstanding software, but none of us get out of our chair to compliment people do we, we only complain. Even us Brits).

In "The Windows Interface Guidelines for Software Design" from Microsoft Press, there are sections such as design "consistency" and "forgiveness" and an appendix giving "common navigation...and shortcut keys". This was especially relevant as Microsoft were trying to allow the mouse and the keyboard to be used independently as opposed to having to use them in combination.

I built my software around these common ideas, which wasn't always welcome; Unix, you'll remember or no doubt know, used the [Enter] key for moving between elements on a screen; Windows started to use the previously underused [Tab] key, and left the [Enter] key as the default action key (usually pressing an OK button). This caused all sorts of uproar from our customers who moved from Unix to Windows (usually because their management had wanted them to, not because they'd wanted to!), and on one screen in particular where speed of entry was paramount, we were forced to allow the Enter key to reproduce the effect of the Tab key. It didn't take me long to find how to do this 10 years ago which led me to suspect many people were in the same position.

But I towed the line for the most part and argued the case that "this is how it is done in Windows", and ended the debate. The principle of keeping to a design standard to allow your users to feel comfortable with any software is a good one and although it certainly wasn't introduced by Microsoft, they did make an effort to let developers know it was expected.

So, how is my software doing 10 years on? Well, sadly, it's looking like a Windows 95 application, but given that is deals with mundane day-to-day enterprise tasks, no one is really complaining that the menus or the toolbars aren't covered in colour and pictures. However, this is often a hurdle for the sales pitch and it's laughable how many potential clients sit through our unique selling points or all the items that our software does better than the competitors, and then sit bolt upright when we show them a report with some colours on it, or a screen where a bit of text is highlighted. Usually followed by, "Ooh, I like that; can you customise those colours?".

But my gripe is with the consistency of keyboard shortcuts. And one in particular: Search. F3. Isn't it? It is on our software because in Windows and Office '95, F3 was always "Find...".

Well it still is in Explorer in Windows 2000, XP & Vista (it brings up the File search) and Notepad (brings up the text search). And it used to be in IE5 but in IE6 it brings up the "Search the Web" toolbar which is immensely annoying. Interestingly in IE7, it brings up the page search again like before IE6. Bit of a U-turn. In Windows Media Player, F3 launches the "Search for Media" dialog and in MSN Messenger, it puts the cursor focus into the contact search box. All "find" related.

What about Office? After all it is Office that is actually the one setting the design standards every two years or so, not Windows itself. In Excel, Powerpoint and Access, F3 does nothing, CTRL+F is required to launch "Find". CTRL+F goes way back so I'm OK with that but F3 could have been made to do the same seeing as it is sitting idle. The same CTRL+F keystroke is required in Word, but horror, F3 does something else! Something to do with Autotext that actually either just changes my document or puts a conspicuous message in my status bar that I usually miss.

In Outlook, F3 shows the little Find toolbar, so one out of 5 isn't bad. But wait. What if I'm reading an email and want to search for text in there? F3? CTRL+F? No. F4. F4? But F4 doesn't do anything in any of the other Office programs. And get this, CTRL+F forwards my email. And F3 does nothing so why couldn't they have used that?

This is actually an unforgivable inconsistency from a corporation the size of Microsoft that prides itself in the interoperability of its software. Especially when they have the gaul to produce books on how we should adhere to design consistency.

So now not only does my software not look colourful because I can't keep up with every release of Office, it now doesn't behave like the latest Microsoft software either. So my users are left having to remember the keystrokes for my software, even though I actually set them to MS standards 10 years ago. But then those same users are going to find different strokes even within the Office suite so they've got no hope.

This isn't really a rant just about F3, it's about Microsoft setting a standard and then moving away from it at the next opportunity. The Ribbon toolbar in Office 2007 has split opinion and I can't lend my support to either side because I'm happy with the Office I'm on. But it's a whole new paradigm that users have to get used to. From what I hear, most people like it once they get past the initial fear, but it's a lot to ask people to learn how to use your software, especially when you're the company driving the standard on your own OS. And for us developers to try and keep up, we have to licence the use of the Ribbon? You're having a laugh.

MDI is another concept that MS really pushed to the forefront and my 10-year old software is MDI to the core. They announced some years ago that they would no longer write MDI applications and no longer thought it was a secure model, which is why you now see Word and Excel, etc all open up a separate Window instance for each document/worksheet as opposed to them all being under one parent window like Office 95. Of course you can still switch between them from the Window menu which is a nice touch for those of us who should know better than to get stuck in our ways.

But the real thing that this is about, and what I wanted to ask you, is should we, do we, and how do we keep up with the look of the software. I fall in the camp that I want my software to look native to the version of Windows you're running. To that end, I use buttons that aren't themed in Windows 2000 but take on the common controls theme for XP and Vista. Same for all other controls. And I set my application font to the font of the OS when it runs, so it looks native and not at all clumsy. And in fact this works well, espeically in Vista. A Delphi 6 program running on Vista, still using the default MS Sans Serif font, looks very old. Even with theme support. Change the font to Segoe UI and bingo, it makes a dramatic difference.

However, not all controls are themed, toolbars being one. There isn't a difference between ComCtrl 5 and 6 for these. So that ruins the effect I was getting closer to, where my application doesn't look out of place. I don't want it to look like a Vista or XP app on Windows 2000 (which personally drives me crazy), but some of those controls just don't scale up to allow me to have it both ways.

And of course many people turn the theming off in XP and Vista and go back to Classic; so why should we subject them to the themed buttons when all they want is their old Windows back?

So how are you keeping up with the trends? Are you at all? Have you gone down the route of just designing software that has a look of its own in which case you are your own master, or are you trying to design it so that it fits in? At what point do you let the nice new buttons and other controls creep in, regardless of the OS?
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