why I’m not a big fan of OOo, part 53240

I was asked after the Deep Fried Bytes podcast why I said on the podcast that I pretty much like Office 2007’s user experience and hate OOo. I could go on at length, but here is a short version of the most important part of it.

Three full years ago Microsoft shipped a beta build of Office that announced “the office suite’s menus have become so cluttered and badly structured that users find it impossible to locate certain functions.”1 Their solution, the Ribbon, does a really good job of grouping important functionality together in a discoverable manner, and made it very easy for me to go from zero (prior to this year, I had not really used Office since 1998, and was far from a power user at that time) to relative power user (which I’ve had to be for various school tasks this year) in a matter of weeks.

Contrast with OOo, which has suffered from the same menu and functionality problem for nearly as long as Office has. OOo has finally started thinking about the problem, three years after Microsoft had already thought about it long enough to propose a pretty darn good solution. In the meantime, accessing OOo’s basic functionality is usually clunky at best, painful in many cases, and impossible for mere mortals at worst.

OOo 3.0 takes significant steps in the right direction in terms of speed and feature quality2, and I’m very excited to hear that the OOo folks are going to take the important step of doing automated collection of menu and feature usage data- an important step that many free software projects should consider taking. I certainly wish them the best of luck in coming up with a solution and implementing it; I will always use it when I have the choice. But in the meantime, for those who haven’t used it- rest assured that unlike Win98->Vista, Office98->Office07 is a huge jump in usability and quality- one that OOo has only begun preparing to follow.

  1. to quote Heise’s description of the same problem in other software. []
  2. though it is still in my experience slower, buggier, and more crash-prone than Office 2007 []

30 thoughts on “why I’m not a big fan of OOo, part 53240”

  1. What I find most interesting about your post is that the English version of Heise Online has actual attracted readers – I hadn’t really expected that.

  2. Haven’t used Office 2k7 myself, but I can believe what you’re saying. OOo badly needs a user interface refresh: doing things like setting a background bitmap for a presentation should be easy; last time I looked it’s about 12 clicks in some really non-obvious places.

    I read on the Renaissance site that they’ll start collecting feedback and start designing solutions latter half of 2009. Assuming a six-month cycle, we’ll maybe start seeing improvements mid-late 2010?

    You wonder if that is too late to make real progress. I agree with your point about data, but let’s get real: you don’t need research to see where OOo sucks.

    Having seen Novell’s efforts with the XML UI descriptor stuff in OOo – for simple stuff like Zoom dialogs, etc. – it seems pretty clear that the main roadblocks to improving the UI are technical; having to adjust code which lays out the UI. A substantial improvement might not arrive before 2011 at this rate.

    By then, Office will likely have moved even further ahead :(

  3. I think Office 2007 and OO’s problem is that they simply have way too many features. I know the storms of protest that follow when you try to remove an existing feature, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that point in the first place.

    I’m a fan of smaller apps (UIs) that allow you to work on a document for a well defined purpose (making envelopes for instance) – and ideally they integrate well with each other.

    Apple’s iWork (Pages/Numbers) does quite a good job of breaking with the Office Suite’s past, while still retaining a decent amount of compatibility with Office’s file format. Abiword is a very nice light-weight word processor – the only thing really holding it back is Office file-format compatibility really. However UI-wise, I’d take Pages or Abiword over Word or Writer any day.

  4. Tom: bwahahahahha. Good one! (Seriously, I did try koffice’s ppt/impress tool for a bit. It took about 5 minutes for me to decide that the UI designers had never been used to create a serious presentation. Have not used kword.)

    nona: I would have agreed with you before seeing 2007 (you should be able to search my archives and find posts saying that OOo should be chasing Pages rather than Word), but after using 2007 extensively, I have to say that Office now does a very good job of coping with the featuritis- it still has all the functionality (even more now, of course) and yet still presents that functionality in a way that normal human beings can wrap their heads around. Very impressive work on their part; the first time I think I’ve ever seen Microsoft actually innovate in UI design.

  5. I’d love for OOo to bring about some serious interface improvements. I use it daily and am finding more and more annoyances and inefficiencies each time I write a piece.

    As much as I’d love to see improvements though, I hope that they’ll try and work in collaboration with other open source projects to bring about an interface that can share some common features with each other. I’d love it if they worked in conjunction with Gnome 3.0 and helped to develop some new HIG guidelines that could help to improve other applications while bringing greater consistency to the desktop.

    Hmm… ok that’s not really well thought out and probably completely senseless. *sigh*

  6. Jon: I’d love to see more consistency between OOo and GNOME (the fact that OOo doesn’t use F11 for full screen drives me nuts regularly), but at some level, a monster app like OOo is a fundamentally different beast with different needs and goals than the typical GNOME app. I’d prefer to see GNOME push for development of more task-centered apps like Pages than to have to compromise with OOo’s radically different needs.

    That said, you could certainly see space for a HIG-for-giganto-apps, to make those kinds of things as GNOME-y as possible within the constraints they’ve got; I guess to some extent that is what MS does with Ribbon.

    (If I were going to pick any third party that I wanted to work with for a next-gen HIG, it would be FFox, not OOo…)

  7. I’m always being driven nuts by the huge size and lack of proper GNOME integration… plus I just don’t like java to begin with…

    I’m looking forward to a usable version of Koffice.. I tried it and it was so odd I didn’t know what to do… We’ll see.. Naturally, I welcome any enhancements to OO.o, because competition is always good.

  8. Disclaimer: Haven’t tried Office2k7 (running linux).
    I agree that OOo interface is completely backwards. Problem is once you get the hang of how to do things, your muscle memory remembers that. Hence you see people who don’t want to move to 2k7 from previous versions of Office because they know where everything was in previous versions. The same arguments flies against OOo, people who are conditioned for Office find it painful to recondition. For people like me who didn’t mind learning, since it gives me 99% of what Office would (on Linux/Win/Mac), I’ll gladly relearn.
    It’s too bad (from what I’ve heard) there isn’t a clean separation of the gui and the rest of the logic in OOo. Then we might see the “firefoxization” of office apps. (Think about the burst of energy and enthusiasm around initial releases of firefox. It’s pluggable, lightweight, cross browser, going to kill ie, etc). It’d be nice if the koffice/gnome people actually colloborated on low level odt libs… Oh well, it is what it is. I’m using OOo more for a presentation/conversion (to pdf/other formats) layer and programatically developing content. (A lot easier with open standards).

  9. Matt: yeah, people definitely have the muscle memory thing going on. That is part of why I am so impressed by Office 2007, from an innovation point of view- it took serious institutional balls to say ‘we know they’ll hate it at first, but we really believe that this is the Right Thing To Do.’ That isn’t easy, though I suppose it is easier when you’ve got an ironclad lock on people’s data ;)

  10. The problem lies with motivation:
    office2k7 is one of the most prominent monetary sources for a very large, competent, and well funded company, while OOo is a money losing, tactical project (meaning that it has no value of its own, except to weaken the competition) by a relatively small company with shrinking margins, bad outlook, and low motivation.

    What chance does OOo have? The code base is almost 20 years old, and is still far from stable.

    OOo is essentially a dead project, at least for now.

  11. I don’t agree that it’s dead, but certainly there are huge problems.

    Here’s a great example: a post from Solveig Haugland, about a new feature in OOo – numbering levels as part of paragraph styles to separate them from headings.

    In the email in the post, there’s a link to the SPECIFICATION. And I use caps advisedly.

    The document for this one feature was first drafted in 2006. 2006!! It’s fourteen pages long. The bug says its targeted at OOo 3.1, so we get it mid-2009(?), assuming the feature makes it through QA on time.

    I mean, good grief. Maybe I’m seriously underestimating the amount of work needed to pull this feature off, but this isn’t exactly speedy innovation. If everything has to go through that process, it may well end up dead.

  12. LIS – It seems like you’ve enumerated why there should be motivation, Office is a cash cow. Perhaps people figure that cloud based is the way of the future for productivity apps?

    The most important thing about OOo is the standard. I can have my data, and access it. The reference implementation is as you say a bit buggy, but I think it works for most people (ie those who don’t need macros). I cringe when I see schools complaining about lack of money, but funneling quite a bit towards licensing of Office….

  13. I actually love OOO – yes, maybe the interface isn’t great, but it’s SO MUCH EASIER to do anything in OOO than in Word, especially if you try crazy things like…including images, etc. :)
    And you are the first person I know who likes Office 2007. I personally hate the new grouping and the non-intuitive, yet functional Office logo in the upper-left side. It feels a lot like Vista – lots of flashy, pretty icons, with many of the same functional problems.

  14. While I agree with you as an individual user (and am delighted the new UI stuff is going at last) it’s worth noting that one of the differentiators that’s got some of the largest new enterprise users of OO.o on board has been the fact that they usually don’t have to budget to retrain Office users when they switch to OO.o. MSFT doesn’t have to worry so much as all their customers are locked in, but it’s been a significant growth factor for OO.o in the last year in my experience.

  15. @proponents of Abiword: I think there is a lot of good stuff there (their collab feature is just a killer — and I think unquestionably one of the examples of true open source innovation; I don’t know about any other office-oriented apps to have it before them, but I may be wrong), but what is more interesting is that even with less functionality I am as lost and confused when I try to use, that I usually end up with running OOo to actually make anything done.

    @Luis and others: I think that it is important to remember that (unless I got a wrong memo) the goal of GTK2/Gnome revolution wasn’t to create programs with less functionality, but UI designed so well, that the functionality doesn’t stand in the way of users’ desire “to do something else than to operate your program” (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/uibook/chapters/fog0000000057.html). I think we don’t need Google Docs or junk like that, but to think even more and even more hard to make UI working better.

  16. I write everything in LaTeX, but get papers from students in .doc or .docx pretty frequently, so occasionally use Office 2k7. I was totally stumped trying to find “Save as…” until I accidentally clicked on the Office logo in the upper left hand corner. Software with a bunch of little icons that you have to point at and wait for the tooltip to pop up to see what they do drive me nuts.

  17. Some good points, if you haven’t read the blog from the UI designers behind office, I would recommend reading it. Some very interesting discussion about how the 2007 interface came about.

    However, Luis you say “still presents that functionality in a way that normal human beings can wrap their heads around” but your mistake is assuming your experience corresponds to that of “normal human beings”. You are not a normal human being, you are a highly technical user. So far I’ve only heard bad things about the 2007 office UI from what I would consider to be normal human beings (professionals whos primary focus is not computers).

    Personally I like the new UI as well, but I’m not about to imagine that most non-technical users like it (since I’ve heard overwhelming personal reports to the contrary). This might just be a fear of change though.

    However, I still think that the ribbon isn’t that great of an interface. It’s an improvement, but I don’t think it really makes a big difference to most people. Features have been re-organized based on years of experience, but the fundamental problem of discoverability still remains. Ribbon tabs or menus, there is not much of a difference when it comes to finding some specific features. You still end up searching slowly through all the options tab by tab. The UI overhaul could have been so much better with intelligent integrated search-based menus, but ohwell.

  18. I learned latex last year so I wouldn’t have to use impress for presentations. It was rough but worth it. I think o2k7 is fantastic.

Comments are closed.