Mail Merge

Robert Accettura writes

… You can have a ‘feature’ like Microsoft Office’s Mail Merge. It’s messy, has an awkward UI, and doesn’t always behave as the user would expect. It’s often considered to be one of the worst features in the entire suite…. I think that’s an example of the ugliness Asa hope to rip out (though different product [sic]).

I seriously hope that Robert wasn’t for one second suggesting that Microsoft Office ought not have mail merge. Mail merge is one of those daily activities in some environments that absolutely is part of a complete word-processing/office solution. You can’t just go around removing features because they have byzantine or even terrible UI. Features, even features that are only going to be used by 20% of the user population are necessary to sell a product. The trick is not to remove features, but to make their use as painless as possible for the people that need them, and as invisible as possible for the people that don’t.

At the same time, it is extremely important to understand that that Microsoft Office and Mozilla Firefox are in very different classes of software. A web browser is primarily a platform so that web content can do it’s stuff. All the fancy bookmarks and history integration planned for Firefox 2.0 is not there because users want fancy-pants bookmarks, it’s there so that the user can get to what they actually want to be using (the web) faster and better.

Atom Feed for Comments 5 Responses to “Mail Merge”

  1. Robert Accettura Says:

    No, I don’t mean it should be removed (IMHO no functionality should be removed). What needs to go is the awkward UI. Mail Merge is very useful. The reason why many don’t use it is two fold:
    1. Don’t know it’s there, or such a feature exists.
    2. Intimidated by the UI
    3. Bothered by how fussy and unpredictable it can be.

    Those can be fixed! Look at how Apple does business. Look at their products. Safari does pretty much what Firefox does. It has tabs, security features, all the selling points Firefox has (minus extensions). But look at their UI. And compare that to Firefox. They did almost the same thing, but with a much simipler UI. Does that mean Firefox has more features? No, it just means the UI isn’t efficient.

    Want to see a really terrible design, check out Microsoft Access, even Microsoft is said to have admitted it’s the weakest link. It’s very awkward to work in there. Your often going back and forth between different parts of the program.

    People don’t want to become experts to use computers… they just want to use them. They don’t want to read a book on how a web browser works, or lookup in FAQ’s how to do something. They just want to do it.

    You know you have a good UI when you stop seeing “How do I…[question] in Firefox”.

    Microsoft’s menu’s are by far the worst I’ve ever seen. So complex they even minimize them now to hide some of the uglyness. Burried in there are a lot of useful features. Sadly, not to many know them all. Being a Business MIS student, I’ve spent enough time over the years that I know most of it. But still some parts of it just don’t feel comfortable.

    The exact same argument can be given for Linux. Most people don’t get high on the thought of recompiling their kernel, restarting services, or fixing permissions. Apple took those problems on with Mac OS X. Most Mac OS users don’t know a thing about UNIX permissions. But they still use their computer without problems.

    IMHO Apple is the gold standard. Their products do a very good job, and are easy to use. My question is why can’t others follow? We know long menu’s, technical terms, giant lists of menu’s confuse people… but nobody seems willing to stop it.

    When I designed reporter, the goal was “as little work as possible”. Most fields are read-only. You just select a problem type (from a list), and *can* enter a comment or email address. Other than that it’s automated. You don’t need to be a computer guy to give feedback. Even the problem types were carefully selected by Asa to be clear, obvious, and as simple as possible. You don’t see “DOM”, or “Scripting Error” or “Error 400” or “Error 411”. Just simple terms people understand. You can fill out a good report in well under a minute. You can do a good job in a mere 5 seconds. We now have 18k reports showing that.

    If you see a post somewhere that says “How do I…” or someone asks you. You know that the UI for that feature can be improved, perhaps overhauled, or just tweeked.

    Firefox has a great UI compared to other Apps out there… but I don’t think it’s ideal. It’s not Apple Good.

  2. Robert Accettura Says:

    Oh yea… why did that old post show up on planet again? That’s from september IIRC. Oh well, it’s a good topic to discuss. ;-)

  3. Peter Lairo Says:

    “The trick is not to remove features, but to make their use as painless as possible for the people that need them, and as invisible as possible for the people that don’t.”

    You’ve just become my hero! I wonder what Asa and the other anti-feature crusaders would say to that…

  4. poningru Says:

    I have to disagree, removing functionality is ok as long as you have some method of putting it back i.e extensions system. Outlook right now is bloated in two ways, UI and memory hogging, same goes for many apps the solution is to take out functionality that only 20% of the people use and allow them to add it themselves by an extension system.

  5. Maian Says:

    It’s a balancing act. It’s okay to put in a new feature if it’s seamless and doesn’t take much memory. But once it starts becoming something intrusive and/or takes a non-trivial amount of mem, it should be an extension.

    One thing that’s particularly troublesome is developer features. I don’t mean UI features like DOM Inspector or JS Console – I mean the DOM, XML extras, SVG, etc. Mozilla is very feature-rich in that area. The notable exceptions are the ones that would add to the filesize considerably yet wouldn’t be used very much, such as MNG and XForms.

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