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Libreoffice needs change

Posted 07-07-2011 at 01:11 AM by William (Dthdealer)

OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice are massive ( and possibly monolithic ) suites of software. In some ways this makes them just as bad as Microsoft office, but they gain back their credit for being designed with user priority over commercial priority. I love being able to use a fully featured office suite that is more than a match for Microsoft Office, but most of the time I try to avoid having to use the suite because it is large, slow and sometimes unwieldy.

My first and foremost problem with Libreoffice that has existed since OpenOffice 2 is its default user interface. It is crowded and badly arranged, to the point where finding things you want to click on distracts you from the task you want to perform: writing.

Toolbars contain buttons which, in a proper interface, should just be 'shortcuts' to features available in the menus. Menus are the primary way to present product features, for they are structured, descriptive and can be of almost infinite size without having to worry about screen real-estate. Toolbar buttons exist to speed up the use of the program by removing the need for clicking several times to perform common operations ( ie Saving ). When a user is moving their mouse over toolbar buttons to work out what they do via their tooltips, there are too many buttons. Only very common operations should exist in the toolbars, for many reasons:
  • Too many buttons causes the user to try to find a feature in them before the menus, which is a slow process of looking at tooltips. This is a situation where all of the pros of menus are desirable ( structure, descriptive words, etc ) and none of the pros of toolbar buttons ( speed ) are exhibited.
  • Too many buttons take up screen real-estate, which is especially a problem with toolbars on wide-screen displays.
  • The user knows exactly what every button does ( and therefore feels in control of the software ) if only the features they use a lot exist in the toolbar
  • A good list of common operations teaches the user that button features are simply menu features that are easier to access, and they gain a more modular understanding of the software ( which is always a good thing ). A user should engage with a user interface, and this is not possible if they do not understand it because they are overwhelmed by too much information at once. Remember, users only 'see' a small section of information in their eyes, but they remember everything they have used.

Menus are good when the user does not know the exact name of the function they wish to perform, because they are structured with easy to read words and categories ( eg 'Format' ). Buttons rely completely on their symbol to convey meaning, and symbols are a very different language to the written word.

Another issue I have with the two office`s is their desire to emulate Microsoft office. Their methods of operation are old-fashioned and 'raster', just like Microsoft Office is ( or was, starting with their more forward push of document styles in the current MSOs ).

Having to manually format a document should be things of the past. This process wastes time, is messy and leads to some bad formatting habits ( ie using ten different fonts and sizes in the same general area ). Styles are better for most document writing, and web technologies ( such as CSS ) have already embraced them. Not only do they allow easier, faster and more consistent document creation, but they also allow a whole document's style to be changed or tweaked at once without having to manually select every title, body and other element to do it by hand.

Most users do not know what styles are, for they have been taught how to use word processors the manual way. An office suite should encourage better habits such as features that actually help the user. I am not saying that the use of styles should be forced upon the user ( and there are some situations where manual formatting is faster and better, such as when creating signs ) but a first user's guide would be very welcome in Libreoffice when it starts up the first time.

In some ways, people would be better off writing their documents in HTML rather than in an office suite. HTML does not enforce things such as the size of a piece of paper onto the user, and everything is done in a structured manner. Finally HTML is completely cross-platform and is designed not to look pixel perfect ( a task it should not be used for, but that is for another blog post ).

Another notable thing LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org copy from Microsoft Office their concept of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets would benefit from a removal of some of the 'locked' features they currently exhibit, namely the fixed positioning of items and the unstructured table space.

By writing information directly onto a spreadsheet, its position is fixed. The problem is information has to be cut and pasted manually to move it even a single row up or down. On top of this, users are not discouraged to have two separate tables on the same virtual 'sheet', which leads to more arrangement problems later.

I believe that a spreadsheet should start not with an infinite size but instead with 0 rows and 0 columns. The user then adds or removes rows and columns ( via an easier method than the current right-click ) as he or she needs them, so the process of adding another entry to an already setup table automatically shifts everything else down by one row for example, and the formatting is kept the same without having to move things manually.

Another thing that needs to be done is the separation of data and description. By data I mean the bulk of information, and by description I mean titles and words used to describe cell, row or column contents. In many ways I believe that some of the features of database programs be incorporated into spreadsheet programs, but not any of the features complex to every-day users. There is currently no middle-ground, which is where I think spreadsheets should be, rather than their current almost 'image editor' status.

There is one very final problem I have with LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org, but it is a more practical one that I am going to register as a bug. The default styles cannot be deleted by the user, and are hard-coded in. This was a very annoying discovery, because I wanted to start from scratch. I currently am working around this by using similar names to the current styles, eg 'Main Title' instead of title, and 'Head 1' instead of 'Heading 1'. If I modify an original style, it will not be put in the same category as the rest of my new styles, and there are dozens of non-deletable default styles I have to sift through to find mine.

What do you think of my ideals? They are only one person's opinion, and criticism would be greatly appreciated. Please feel free to comment.

Regards, William
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    I believe it's called "you get what you pay for"
    Posted 07-07-2011 at 01:10 PM by lumak lumak is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by lumak View Comment
    I believe it's called "you get what you pay for"
    I am not sure how I should understand this. Are you saying that LibreOffice is bad because it is free?

    Regards, William
    Posted 07-08-2011 at 07:46 PM by William (Dthdealer) William (Dthdealer) is offline
 

  



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