Microsoft announced Office 2013 on Monday (16 June 2012), with “touch everywhere” listed among the highlights of the new version of the productivity suite.
“Office responds to touch as naturally as it does to keyboard and mouse,” Microsoft said in the press statement that announced the availability of a customer preview of the new software.
Although the ribbon control used in the current version of the Microsoft Office interface seemed to translate well to touch input, there are other aspects to the design of a touch-friendly user interface that must be considered.
Speaking to corporate vice president of the Microsoft Office division, PJ Hough, and principal lead program manager Owen Braun, a lot of consideration has gone into the design decisions.
Confirming the screenshots that had leaked prior to the announcement of Office 2013, Hough explained that the ribbon spanning the top of an application is minimised in a number of cases. There is also larger spacing between items on the ribbon to increased the hit target, Hough said.
The new version of Microsoft Outlook includes a “touch mode” option that increases the spacing between menu items and buttons on the ribbon. On a touch screen it is quite difficult to enable however.
Asked about this strange occurance, Braun said tha in future it shouldn’t be necessary to turn on Outlook’s “touch mode” on a touch screen device.
He explained that Windows 8 provides a flag the device can set to indicate that it is a touch device. The “touch mode” option was included for devices with both touch as well as keyboard and mouse input, Braun said.
Braun explained the rationale behind the inclusion of the option by way of example: What mode should the interface of an application be in if a wireless keyboard and mouse are connected, and the user picks up their device and sits back in their chair?
A similar design challenge exists around the Windows 8 software keyboard: if a wireless keyboard is connected (with or without a mouse) but a user touches an input area, should the software keyboard pop up?
Where the iPad elects not to display the keyboard, the Windows 8 Release Preview does. Microsoft explained that this is a conscious decision to respond based on the context provided by the input of the user.
Though these issues are relatively small, they can have a tremendous impact on the usability of an application on a touch device, and it is interesting to see how Microsoft approaches touch interface design problems.
Jan Vermeulen was a guest of Microsoft in San Francisco