Word 2013: Better by Design

This article authored by Jeffrey Roach originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ALM’s LJN LegalTech Newsletter.

Hey, wanna know the one rule for a flat stomach? How about the secret $5 wrinkle buster? [Spoiler] There is no one rule or $5 secret. But it must be part of the human condition to seek out quick solutions to thorny problems, because we keep clicking these ads. This trickles into my little corner of world through a seemingly harmless question: Should I turn that off? “That” could be anything from Keep track of formatting to Prompt to update style. People will run up to me at a conference or after a speech and ask me crazy things like whether they should turn off Set left- and first –indent with tabs and backspaces. Although the details of the question change, my answer is always the same. I don’t know, should you?

You can dramatically alter the usability of a product by tweaking the various options associated with each of the Microsoft Office products, but like the Matrix you can’t be told whether or not something should be turned off, you have to be shown. As part of an ongoing article series, I will be walking you through a fresh, out-of-the-box installation of Office 2013 and demonstrating how minor changes to the design of the desktop can have a major impact on productivity. As you might expect, Word will likely get a disproportionate amount of our time, since we have a long and colorful history of manipulating how it looks.

Helping firms work through these subtleties is something I’ve done since the glory days of Office 97. I usually lock myself up in a conference with members of the project team for a couple of days methodically turning things off and on and discussing which option provides a better user experience and then trying to balance that with what the firm has historically done, and what the users’ expectations are. Some of the choices are easy and obvious. Does anyone really want their Heading 1 to be 14 pt., Cambria and blue? I think not. Others are far more complicated. But setting by setting we work our way through it and the end of the session we have a desktop that we believe will enable our users to be successful. [What they actually do with that desktop is a whole other article.]

The Secret Circle

I think about the days prior to Office 97 as the dark days, the lost years. I first started teaching and using Word back in the DOS days, but that was in a corporate environment. The first time I taught Word in a law firm was Word 2.0. Trying the guide secretaries who were used to WordPerfect into the murky waters of Word was painful for them and me. The truth is I had no idea why Word did the things it did. Over the years and subsequent versions we trainers formed a secret society that would get together and try to make sense of things. I remember being an early evangelist for a feature called “Headings”. We did manage to cobble together a shared understanding of how Word worked, but it wasn’t until the release of the Office 97 Resource Kit by Microsoft that many of us had our aha moment. In Part 6: Architecture of Office, Microsoft clearly and concisely laid out the underlying architecture behind each of the Office products. I can say without shame that Chapter 39: Microsoft Word Architecture completely changed my life. I want you to stop and think about how sad that statement is. Nonetheless it is absolute required reading for any Microsoft Office enthusiast and it has aged remarkably well. You can still find a copy online at Microsoft.com, just search for Office 97 Resource Kit. Much of what I will discuss in this series of articles is built on the shoulders of the book.

Start Me Up

With an appreciation of how we got here and some idea of what we hope to accomplish, let’s turn our attention to our first design challenge… The Microsoft Office Start screen.

The Start screen appears when you first launch Word and allows you quick access to documents you have opened recently as well as templates you can use to create a new document. The first template in the list is called Blank document. Selecting this template will drop you into a new blank document, based on the Normal template. For those of you keeping score that’s a couple of extra keystrokes or clicks to get to where you used to be automatically. This is progress? As a result, my students immediately start clamoring for ways to turn the Start screen off. Nothing would be easier than pointing them to Options in Backstage and telling them to remove the check from Show the Start screen when this application starts on the General tab. Better yet, I could send them to this article, which goes into gruesome details on how use registry keys to set that state of the Start screen in all of the Office applications.

But doing so would be a disservice to my students and to the future users of the desktop. Think about it this way: Microsoft hasn’t made a change in the way applications start since, well, ever. So if they are inserting this Start screen between us and a blank document we should at least spend some time understanding what it does, how it works and if it should be a part of our design. We may yet determine that it doesn’t make the cut, but not before we’ve put it through its paces.

First, what does the Start screen enable you to do? Let’s take a look at the Start screen features and the pros and cons of each.

Access recent documents

  • Pros: Quick access to the documents you’ve been working on recently; Works across multiple machines if you are signed into Office; Attractive, easy to understand user interface.
  • Cons: Users may not be signing into Office; May not work with the document management system (DMS).
  • Action Terms: Investigate how/if it works with the DMS; Are we logging in to Office?

Open other documents

  • Pros: Works as advertised.
  • Cons: Can we redirect this to the DMS?
  • Action Terms: Test with the DMS.


  • Pros: Promotes a template-based workflow; Allows you to pin templates to the top of the list; Works with group and personal templates.
  • Cons: These are not our templates; May not work with third-party template launcher.
  • Action Items: Can we feature the firm’s templates? Can we suppress the Microsoft templates?

Login (or out) of Office

  • Pros: Provides easy access to logging into and out of your Microsoft account.
  • Cons: Provides easy access to logging into and out of your Microsoft account.
  • Action Items: Need to figure out whether we are allowing users to login to their Office account.


It seems we are at a stalemate on our very first design choice. Don’t worry, in the next article we will tackle the initial look and feel of the Word 2013 environment where there are plenty of decisions to be made that have absolutely nothing to do with the DMS and everything to do with creating a positive first impression.

In the meantime, if you are up for some homework and you have Office 2013 running, please do some testing with the Start screen on and let me know if having access to Recent documents causes you any trouble with your document management system. In my test, it has caused me some hiccups. Please share your results with me and I will publish them at the beginning of the next article (reach me via e-mail at jroach@encoretech.com. Don’t forget to include with which DMS you are testing! Until then, keep asking questions, pushing boundaries and advocating for your users.