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To use a word processor sensibly you need templates (OK, unless everything you write is a one-off). I’m not sure if this is planned or not, but in Microsoft Word, using, installing and maintaining templates has been getting steadily more difficult, as they have been buried under the operating system and changes in the Word application. My comments here apply to Windows versions. Dunno about the Mac, yet.

Two things have happened to make templates recede from view:

  • Changes to the operating system mean that the folder in which templates are stored by default is not visible by default, so it’s pretty hard to send someone a template and tell them where to put it.
  • Word 2003 has moved templates ‘down the menu’, to the point that you really have to look hard to find them.

Result?

Fewer people are going to stumble on templates like I did twenty years ago, and casual users are likely to give up using them.

More discussion about the details follows. Oh, and OpenOffice.org isn’t too great in this department either. So lets think about how a well-executed template system would work, and write it up.

The first blow to templates came when Windows started hiding system folders, including the “Documents and Settings” folder for user profiles, where templates are stored.

When distributing templates we used to write documentation that instructed users to look in Tools / Templates and Add-Ins… to find the path Word uses to store templates, then copy the template to that directory. Since at least Windows 2000, they can’t even see the default directory from the Windows Explorer, so these instructions became too hard to follow. At NextEd, where our publishing system depended on templates, the final, alarming, solution, was to write an installer macro that attempts to write the template into the correct directory when you open it, if you choose to trust the process and allow macros to run, which you really shouldn’t. Why is this so hard?

Writing this, I got to wondering what current Microsoft documentation has to say about installing templates.

To check your template file location settings, click Options on the Tools menu, and then click the File Locations tab.

Ok, but that doesn’t actully show you the path, it gives you a file dialogue, where you can work out the path if you know how. And:

Save your custom templates in the Templates folder. Template files that you save in the Templates folder appear in the Templates dialog box, which you display by clicking New on the File menu, and then clicking On my computer in the New Document task pane. Any document (.doc) file that you save in the Templates folder also acts as a template.

But if the folders are hidden how ‘do’ you Save your custom templates in the Templates folder?

There’s more, but it’s too depressing to go into the details.

The second blow, which may just kill off templates as we know them, comes in Word 2003, which has replaced some of its dialogs with a “Task Pain”, er “Task Pane”. This is what happened to me yesterday:

Me: File / New.

XP: <apperently nothing>

Me: File / New.

Me: Oh, there is something. There’s a new toolbar thing (called a “Task Pain”, er “Task Pane”) on the right of the screen.

This varies between versions but the task pane has this structure, starting with a generous offer not to open a new document, but open one of the ones I just closed.

Open a document

Doc 1
Doc 2
Doc 3
Doc 4
Doc 5
Doc 6
Doc 7
Doc 8
Doc 9
More documents...

New

New from existing document

Choose document

New from Template

My template
My other template

So, when I ask for new document, I am offered old ones first, followed by ‘blank’ ones, followed by cloning an existing document, followed, finally, if I have read that far and the window is big enough, creating a document from a template.

I assume that Microsoft engineers have done this based on the frequency with which templates get used, according to their research, although I can’t believe that usability labs show that this Task Pane idea is better than a dialog box. And because I am now an infrequent user of Word, thanks to OpenOffice.org, I am intially left staring at the place the dialog should be when I try to open a new document in Word, until I remember to look to the right.

I suppose that this is not a plot to kill off templates but it is one more reflection of the way software companies do business. They sell on features and demos to the people who do the buying. The Task pane is apparently a ‘feature’, even though it interacts strangely with the help system, and clutters up the screen.

And there is no way they are going to do something like make templates more prominent rather than less, even though for many enterprises, including one-person ones, that would be a better way to work.

Imagine the paper clip popping up with “It looks like you’re using this computer like a glorified typewriter, would you like to systematize your work? Become more efficient? Improve the consistency of the image you project? Make your documents more usable?”.

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