Word 2013: Better by Design … Part Three of an Ongoing Series

This article authored by Jeffrey Roach originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ALM’s LJN LegalTech Newsletter.

Welcome back. If you have read my previous two articles you are well on your way to Word nirvana. If not, I recommend you take a moment to catch up on those articles before you tackle this one. The good work we did to set up the default look and feel of the Microsoft Word environment can have a huge impact on the usability of the product. Another way that we can improve the overall experience is to tweak the variety of settings that lurk behind the scenes. That’s right, it is time to talk about Word Options.

There’s a reason why I call my two-day strategic planning session for Office 2013 Black Holes & Revelations. Word is full of mysteries. When you start to dig into them, if you are lucky you may be rewarded with that elusive a ha! moment: a revelation. But just as often, the deeper you dig the more confused you become: a black hole. I’ve seen many projects stall because the team couldn’t come to any agreement on what the default setting should be for Word Options. In order to avoid that, let’s establish some ground rules:

  • If you can leave the out-of-the-box setting intact without compromising the usability of the product, do it.
  • Be respectful of how Word works in your current version. Although we sometimes look at the latest upgrade as an opportunity to fix mistakes made in the past, you have to be very careful about compromising the expected behavior. Case in point, if you begin typing a manual list, Word will convert it to an automatic list. Some of us are tempted to disable this feature to encourage our users to create their list using Styles. Changing the expected behavior in order to support a best practice sounds like a good idea, but this kind of thinking can backfire on you.
  • If you change a default setting, allow the users the flexibility to change it back. Although we can hard code a setting through the use of policies, in general you want to allow people to personalize Word to work for them.
  • Don’t let your personal preferences cloud your judgment. I personally can’t stand the mini toolbar and I’m always surprised when people tell me that they find it useful.

Ready to get started? Click the File Tab and choose Options. Word’s options are organized into five tabs: General, Display, Proofing, Save, Language and Advanced. I’m going to step through all five tabs, pointing out the options that I think are worth discussing. If I don’t point it out, then you can safely leave the default setting.

The General Tab

Microsoft describes these as the general options for working with Word. That’s helpful. Most of these setting can be left as is, but there are three that are worth discussing.

  • Office Theme. Office 2013 is visually very bland. I would recommend setting the default theme to Dark Gray. People are still going to complain that there’s no contrast, but when you show them White they will thank you for selecting Dark Gray.
  • Open e-mail attachments and other uneditable files in reading view. The idea here is to remind people that these files can’t be edited and saved, but our paper-loving audience is uncomfortable with reading view and usually spend a few clicks to get back to print layout. If the default behavior is always going to be to get out of reading view, then you might consider turning this setting off.
  • Show the Start screen when this application starts. It’s important to verify that the Start screen (and it’s recently edited documents) don’t interfere with any of your third-party tools, including your document management system.

The Display Tab

These settings change how document content is displayed on the screen and when printed. I’m okay with the default settings on this tab. Some folks are tempted to turn on Update fields before printing, but there are scenarios where we don’t want the fields to update. Turning this on takes the decision out of the individual user’s hands. I think you’re better off teaching people how to update their fields and discussing the scenarios where they might not want to.

The Proofing Tab

Make adjustments here to change how Word corrects and formats your text. This tab is tricky because all of the really interesting options are hidden behind the AutoCorrect Options button, which has five tabs. Fortunately the only settings we need to tweak are on the AutoFormat As You Type tab. For those of you playing along at home, click the AutoCorrect Options button and then select AutoFormat As You Type.

  • Fractions (1/2) with fraction characters (½). These one seems like a great idea, but there’s a gotcha. While there are symbols for common fractions, like ½, there is no symbol for less common fractions like 1/8. The result is that you can end up with some of your fractions that are symbols and some that are three characters. This not only looks sloppy, but also impacts how the text would be redlined. Note the differences between the first fraction and the second: 15/8 versus ½ ¼. Your better off using superscript and subscript to create your fractions. In fact, you could build an entire library of fractions using AutoText that would allow your users to type the regular fraction (1/3) and get the super and subscripted version (1/3).

Although I could make an argument that some of the other settings in this tab should be changed—I’m looking at you Set left- and first-indent with tabs and backspaces—I’ve learned to make my peace with these settings and leave them alone. The only other setting you might consider changing on the Proofing tab is whether or not you want to Mark grammar errors as you type. If you leave this setting on you will end up with lots of squiggly green lines in your documents. Legalese is rarely grammatically correct.

Before we leave this tab, I’d like to point out the Check/Recheck Document button. It’s curious that it is hidden away under Options, instead of on the Review tab. If the button says Recheck it means that you have run a spellcheck on the document and ignored one or more words. These words will continue to be ignored in this document until the end of time, or you click the Recheck Document button. When I receive a document from someone else I always use the Recheck Document button to reset the document dictionary. Otherwise any typos that have been accidently ignored will continue to be ignored. It’s not that I don’t trust my fellow typist, but I don’t trust my fellow typist.

The Save Tab

Customize how documents are saved by changing these options. In most law firms we have third-party tools that play a role in how and where our documents are saved. Because of these tools, I’m only going to point out one setting in here that you might want to tweak.

  • Save AutoRecover information every 10 minutes. A good typist can type a lot of text in 10 minutes. I usually spin this down to 3 or 5 minutes. On a modern machine these more frequent AutoRecovers shouldn’t cause degradation in performance.

The Language Tab

You can use the tab to Set the Office Language Preferences. The particulars of your setup are unique, so there are no changes to make on this tab. Here’s a tip though, did you know that Microsoft refers to US English as 1033? When you are browsing through the folder structure the 1033 folder contains the proofing tools for US English.

The Advanced Tab

Microsoft calls these settings the Advanced options for working with Word. I call them the”we didn’t know where else to put them” settings. There are lots of settings here that I’m tempted to change, but once again I’m only going to focus on the most important options.

  • Prompt to Update Style. When you turn this setting on, anytime you make a change to a style (other than the Normal style) and then click the name of the style in the Styles pane, Word will prompt you to update the Style to reflect the recent changes. Wait. What? Yes, it is somewhat involved and can feel arbitrary. Here’s a typical use case scenario: Imagine that you have several paragraphs in your document controlled by Heading 2. You select and format one of these Heading 2 paragraphs to include underlining. Do you get prompted to update the style? No. However, if at any point you ever click in the Heading 2 paragraph with the underlining and then click the Heading 2 style on the Styles pane, you will get the prompt. Frankly there are easier ways to update styles and I think the delayed prompt is confusing. I would leave it off.
  • Keep track of formatting. In earlier versions this option was directly tied to the Style Inspector. If this was turned on, direct paragraph and character formats would appear in the respective plus sections. If it was turned off, then you couldn’t tell what direct formats had been layered on top of your style. In Word 2013, the direct formats show in the Style Inspector whether this option is turned off or on. So the only reason to turn this option on would be to mark the formatting inconsistencies. No thanks, let’s leave it off.
  • Enable click and type. Talk about nasty, when this option is turned on you can click anywhere in the document and just start typing. Of course Word is going to add lots of hard returns and tabs to get you there. Let’s pass.
  • Pasting from other programs: Keep Text Only. One of the quickest ways to make a mess out of your document is to paste text in from a browser or a PDF. Setting this to Keep Text Only will strip out the format associated with incoming text, leaving you with plain text that you can then restyle using Word. Yes, it can take a little more time, but the end result is much more reliable.
  • Field Shading: Always. Fields automate some of the more repetitive tasks in Word, like creating a table of contents or cross references. As a result, it’s important not to type over or delete field codes in your document. Unfortunately, Word doesn’t make it immediately obvious where these magical codes live, unless you happen to click on the text that contains the code. Changing this setting from When Selected to Always will make all of the field codes in your document appear shaded, whether they are selected or not.
  • Show this number of Recent Documents (25). As we have discussed before, you will want to make sure that your document management system works with this feature before you enable it.

Even when you narrow the list down, there are still lots of options to consider. I hope this list will help to guide your discussion. Don’t be afraid to disagree with me if you think a different setting will benefit your users. Remember, you have the home court advantage.

Most of the settings in Word Options are stored in the registry and can be set using the Office Customization Tool. Be warned, there are a few that will require you to export a registry key and add it to your configuration. Just think of this as Microsoft’s way of keeping you on your toes.

I hope you are enjoying our deep dive in Word 2013’s configuration. For my next article I’m going to take a look a the different ways you can automate repetitive task, including galleries, building blocks, content controls, VBA, action panes and custom task panes.

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