Why it's hard to create nicely styled documents

Templates and styles can be a great productivity boon when writing documents or creating spreadsheets, but products don't make them easy to use.

Awhile back a former colleague noted that certain online word processors didn't do a good job with styles. Some commenters noted that this was a moot point as few people use styles anyway. That's true. But I'm going to blame the vendors at least a bit. I'll pick on Microsoft Word but, in truth, it's no worse in this regard than most other products.

The Microsoft Word document gallery is filled with splashy eye candy rather than more broadly useful templates. Screen capture by Gordon Haff

Do people tend to follow the path of least resistance with their tools? Sure. I'm as guilty as anyone of having wasted way too much time over the years for lack of checking out documentation or keyboard shortcuts when picking up a new software product. The result is often wasted time performing some repetitive task less efficiently than I might have.

Failing to use styles and templates in word processing and presentation packages is one such inefficiency. You end up doing lots of manual formatting time and time again. But word processors and presentation packages don't make adopting templates and styles especially easy.

Consider what happens when you create a new document in Word. You're presented with a large collection of templates--coordinated collections of styles and formats. So far so good. But who on earth decided to lead with this particular collection of templates? They mostly assume you want a lot of flashy graphics with complex column layouts and that you want to choose from a huge list of styles. Ten levels of headings anyone?

Quick show of hands. In the course of your daily work, how many of you have the need to create elaborate newsletters or brochures from a stock design? Hmm. Don't see many (virtual) hands out there.

Let's try another. How many of you have to create relatively basic reports, papers, or memos? Ah. Now I see a lot of hands. And I'm guessing that most of you aren't given a standard company template for the purpose.

I don't have a particular problem with Word including all manner of special-purpose templates. But I do have a big problem with how they include all these specialty geegaws while failing to include more basic ones that address day-to-day needs.

Creating a set of styles for a document isn't especially hard, but it's not entirely intuitive either.

Some fonts work better than others for Web display while optimizing for print should often drive different choices. Sans-serif fonts (which lack the small bumps or "serifs" at the end of strokes) can be best-suited for headings and serif fonts for the text in the body. Line spacing, indentations, font weight, and font size all matter in the ultimate look and readability of a document.

But the best approaches to document design evolved over centuries. It's not reasonable to expect the average student or business user to know all this. And, even if they have some design experience, as noted above, they'll often take the path of least resistance and just manually format everything.

By including dozens of templates that are mostly useful only in very limited situations, Word turns templates and styles from a useful tool for every day into something that you only pull out when you're putting together an annual newsletter. Why not instead provide a few basic templates with sensible formatting and font choices for a handful of basic styles and put them front and center. If Word and its competitors did so, you'd see a lot more people use them--and, in so doing, improve the look and legibility of lots of documents.

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