PleaseTech blog

We aim to provide useful, pertinent and sometimes fun insights into the world of document collaboration and the workings of a technology company

Microsoft Word - the most complex software product in the world?

Posted by David Cornwell on 10. June 2015 11:09

Founder/CEO of PleaseTech Ltd - collaborative document review and co-authoring for the enterprise.


“Microsoft Word must be one of the most complex software products in the world” was the thought I had a couple of weeks ago whilst sitting in a hotel room in Seattle preparing to give a Word Master Class presentation at the APMP Bid & Proposal Conference 2015.

I’d just done the maths. Word 2010 has 10 menus (not including the Help function) with over 350 commands. The standard and formatting toolbars alone have around 200 options. What does the web say on the subject? Excel certainly features in some of the ramblings of people who consider such things and most agree that Word has several millions lines of code behind it. Of course, Word is part of the Office Suite and has a number of items in common. The exact number of lines of code in the Office suite is a Microsoft secret but one helpful blog post noted that LibreOffice (broadly functionally equivalent) has just over 7 million lines of code and just under 1.5 million comments (within the code).

Whatever the statistics I think we can agree it’s more complex than your average user needs. Indeed, it’s said that '90% of people only ever use 10% of the functionality'. Of course, not everyone uses the same 10% and therein lies the rub. There are so many ways to do things in Word and, with many people ‘self-taught’, it means that you can very quickly get into a complete mess. In fact, one of our key benefit messages with respect to PleaseReview for document authors is that reviewers can ‘mark-up the document but not mess it up’.

So this inevitably brings us onto best practice. Whilst some clients, typically those in the Pharmaceutical Industry, use standardized templates which (usually) follow best practice, there are many who are using internal (and sometimes very poorly developed) templates and others who are using templates developed 20 years ago which have been progressively updated to the newer versions of Word and, as such, contain a whole load of what can only be described as garbage. 

How do we know this? It’s simple, we have the challenge of taking these various documents, processing them and displaying them in PleaseReview, our collaborative review software. This is difficult enough if the document is a nice consistent document based on Word Styles and following best practice. It’s not at all straightforward if the document is a mess of styles, direct formatting, lists lined up with spaces and so on. 

The types of thing we see are hand typed tables of contents; hand typed numbered lists; hybrids of where the initial TOC/list has been manually edited; direct formatting, drawings all over the place and, of course, manual cross references – I’m sure you get the picture. 

So, when we were considering new topics for speaking slots at events we came up with the concept of the Word Master Class. Offering to speak on document collaboration or document review was not really an option as, by definition, we had to discuss our own products and this was considered as a product pitch. These are deeply frowned upon in conferences and therefore to be avoided.

So the Word Master Class was developed. It leverages the company’s detailed knowledge of Word, helps us as we want nice consistent documents based on Styles and following best practice and appears to be a subject a lot of people want to listen to. It’s proving very popular and receiving some great feedback. An example is given below:

“I attended your session today and wanted to reach out and say thank you. In one hour you managed to save me a serious amount of time formatting and editing documents. Can you please send me the instructions so I can try the new techniques on my own? Again, thanks for opening my eyes to easy tricks to solving everyday proposal problems!”

The Master Class is constantly evolving based on feedback and further research. In addition to the more serious material, we try to cover some of the more quirky items to lighten the mood. A specific trick is the ‘Rand’ function. Typing '=RAND(x,y)' – where x & y are numbers - will generate random Lorem Ipsum text where x is the number of paragraphs and y is the number of lines per paragraph. Most people understand that Lorem Ipsum text is dummy text used to test document layouts, etc. Just to give some background on Lorem Ipsum, its origin is in the early days of typesetting (in the early 1500s) when an unknown printer took a gallery of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. Since then, further research has concluded that it has roots in a piece of classical Latin literature from 45 BC (source: Lipsum.com). I use the Rand function regularly when demonstrating co-authoring and it occasionally raises a comment along the lines of "I didn’t know you could do that in Word". 

Whilst writing this blog I thought I’d research 'Microsoft Word and humor' to see if there was anything which caught my eye. Well I’m very grateful to a chap called William Smith who preserved and published this exchange from a Microsoft Word forum which was about to be terminated. 

In short and in summary, the questioner concludes that “Latin seems a bizarre choice”. I guess if we look beyond the immediate humor this demonstrates that it’s not just professional writers who use Word. Almost everyone uses it and, if they haven’t been trained (and they frequently haven’t), they somehow make it look right using their limited knowledge. This even applies to people who spend a considerable amount of their time using Word in a professional capacity. 

In fact, it’s precisely these people – people who may be subject matter experts who end up writing documents rather than Word experts – who are the target audience for our Master Class. 

Anyway, the Word Master Class is a 45 minute presentation/demonstration of some of the features of Word, covering the use of Styles, Section Breaks, Outline View, Drawings, Hyperlinks and Cross References, Macros and the Quick Access Toolbar. We will be running the Word Master Class as a webinar in the 2nd half of the year so, if it’s of interest, send us an email and we will advise you of the webinar details as soon as available.

 

Not another email attachment to review (the options)

Posted by Sarah Holden on 19. August 2013 12:00

Half of the PleaseTech marketing team.


How much effort does it take to produce all the documents that you work with? It’s a question I had rarely considered before joining PleaseTech. But faced with the mass of documentation businesses produce: policies, procedures, manuals, reports, product specs, proposals, marketing collateral (you get the drift)… and then understanding that creating these usually requires significant editing and review before final publication - usually with the input of multiple people – I now ’get’ the need for PleaseReview. 

Previously, as an independent marketing consultant, I used the ‘traditional’ manual review methods. Whilst tradition is a wonderful thing in some circumstances, in this case it is inefficient and costly. Email and tracked changes is fine if it's a ‘one-to-one’ situation. But, as soon as there are more than two people involved it becomes ‘tricky’, if not downright challenging.

Here I consider some of the alternatives available for the collaborative editing and reviewing of business documents and put forward the case that you should use the right tools if you want the job done properly - and as a result, get a better return in terms of money and time saved.

The typical document production process is a workflow that involves a few individuals or at times teams of participants. It goes something like this:

After the document has been drafted, it’s made available to one or more persons for editing (co-authoring) and review. The more extensive the document, the more people that typically become involved. This collaborative process may be repeated several times before a document is considered final. 

Organizations will typically use one of the following methods to carry this out:

Manual – Our research confirms most organizations use manual processes for document review. They muddle through by managing email attachments, copying and pasting edits into original documents, undergoing multiple review cycles, working with several document versions and may even attend several review meetings. 

Time consuming. Frustrating. Unproductive.

Generic online approaches  These are readily available and a step beyond email attachments. Examples include: Adobe Acrobat's shared PDF review and Google Drive. People can access the document online, at the same time which means time saved and fewer review cycles required.

However, solutions such as these have multiple drawbacks.  Things to look out for: do changes still have to be manually incorporated into the original document? Are users able to overwrite others' changes? Are metrics and other review activity captured in a report? Is there any review management? Does it support Word formatting and styles (the most popular document type) and are there any document confidentiality issues (as the document is hosted in the cloud)?

PDF is very popular, but annotations are extremely visual and could overwhelm the document owner:

Business collaboration platforms  These include systems such as Microsoft SharePoint (read our whitepaper), Open Text Content Server and EMC Documentum. Whilst providing a broad range of business collaboration tools, they cannot be expected to meet all the criteria required for a fully functioning, controlled collaborative editing and review solution. Co-authoring is an ‘after you ….. no, after you, I insist’ situation based on 'check-in, check-out', whilst review is typically PDF based. In our experience, document authors and reviewers quickly develop manual workarounds which take us full circle back to email attachments!  

Then there is PleaseReview. After three years at PleaseTech I understand why PleaseReview flourishes. It takes a specialist approach to the issue. Recognizing that many organizations have to meet strict regulatory, compliance or corporate standards it is designed specifically to control and manage the entire review process. It does this by:

  • making the document available in a secure, controlled and collaborative environment 
  • providing owner management and control
  • delivering specialist functionality including automatic change consolidation, easy reconciliation of comments and comprehensive reporting
  • catering for various document types such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF 
  • offering offline and tablet review. 

The associated benefits can be summarized by improved performance – such as reduced review costs, increased time savings, greater employee efficiency and accountability, better quality documents and high user satisfaction. 


For more information on PleaseTech's collaborative review and co-authoring solution, visit: www.pleasetech.com

The nightmare of 'tracked changes'

Posted by PleaseTech Guest on 27. June 2013 15:09

Our guest blogger is...


Andrew Barnes, Independent Marketing Consultant

 

I'm not prone to nightmares, and normally I sleep quite well.  But towards the end of last year I genuinely did wake in the middle of the night in a slight panic.

Over the years I've worked in a variety of different roles with many types of software companies.  From rapidly growing UK companies with great products to global organizations with products in need of refresh, I've worked in some sort of marketing position.

Throughout that time one thing has been more or less constant: the need to create, share and review documents.  Even now, as an independent consultant, I've always thought of myself as pretty adept at juggling documents to ultimately come out with a polished datasheet, press release, whitepaper or proposal as required.  But for some reason this time it was different.

I had been co-ordinating the creation and approval of a new whitepaper for a company that will remain nameless.  This involved taking input from a few different departments and working with a couple of agencies in different time zones.

There was nothing really out of the ordinary.  A draft had been created.  Like many companies there wasn't much of a process to follow.  They relied on the distribution of the whitepaper by email and using tracked changes in Microsoft Word to evolve it.

I won't bore you with the details of the rainbow of colors I had to resolve in the document as the emails came back and people edited edits.  I set about resolving the amendments and accepting comments where appropriate.  By the time I'd finished I felt pretty relieved.

So why did I wake with a start?  For some reason I suddenly realized that I'd inadvertently approved for external release a document that was still being modified by some fairly senior people.  And the situation needed to be corrected pretty quickly.

At the 11th hour an executive had decided the document needed a particular twist and had started a new email thread distributing the original version.  I'd been told this in passing, but it had slipped my mind and as a result the consolidation of some pretty critical amendments hadn't happened.  All my hard work had been messed up.

So first thing the following morning I still had the same deadline to meet, and I had to work out to incorporate amendments to amendments, quickly research responses to new comments and resubmit for further approval across time-zones.

I didn't have the luxury of an audit trail to work out what had gone on.  The lack of process had let me down.  So I painstakingly had to go about comparing documents, tracking down emails to see who had done what and chasing one person who was adamant they needed to be involved, but couldn't be tracked down (and yes the pun was intended).

I got there in the end. The whitepaper was published and well received by the audience.  So apart from some shredded nerves and extra work, no real harm was done.

Since then I've started doing some work for PleaseTech Ltd and have had my eyes opened to the value of a structured, controlled approach to document review.

I think it's time for me to stop juggling documents and drowning in the sea of tracked changes.  If only I can persuade my clients of the right way to control the document review process...

Will online word processors ever become mainstream?

Posted by Tim Robinson on 17. June 2013 12:54

CTO at PleaseTech


You have to hand it to Google. In the early days at least, they achieved success by unleashing a product on the market that was so far ahead, not just of current offerings, but of people’s expectations, that they changed the game. First this happened with search, then with webmail and then again with online maps. In each case they went into an already-busy marketplace and blew it away purely with the superiority of their product.

Of course you can argue that Google and Microsoft are now head-to-head on all 3 applications (and on online word processing which we’ll come to in a second), but there’s no doubt that Google defined the genre and MS have been playing catch-up. And I’m not naïve enough to think that these offering (either MS or Google) were developed from scratch in house, but it’s the Google machine that has rolled them out and made them ubiquitous. The point I’m making is simply that if anyone can make a web application work, Google can.

Not long after maps and Gmail, they turned their attention to Google Docs and the fields of online word processing and spreadsheets. They’ve certainly made their mark here but in terms of overall adoption to this type of application, it’s still relatively a minority activity. The obvious corollary to my previous conclusion is: If Google can’t make it work, maybe nobody can.

I think there are several reasons for this: firstly the fact that Google Docs by a massive margin falls short of the usability and functionality of Microsoft Word (even the 10% that most users use) and, judging by the lack of improvements in the last couple of years, Google isn’t that fussed about catching up. Even the idea of writing a word processor inside a web browser using JavaScript is a really difficult (some might say crazy) thing to attempt. Secondly the “always connected world” isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as those living in Southern California would like us to believe (I regularly find myself in locations without even cell phone access, and I don’t exactly live in the middle of nowhere); and thirdly there’s the fact that if you have a document saved somewhere you control (whether that’s on your hard drive or EDMS), you can at least have a strategy for security, backup and Disaster Recovery whereas with the online world you’ll never really know where your data is or who has access.

But lastly I think there’s a more philosophical angle: writing a document is a very personal activity, even when that document, as a piece of intellectual property, is owned by your employer. Of course there is a need for collaboration – that’s what PleaseTech is all about – but for the creative business of writing, I want to work on my own, and I don’t want people messing with my content until I’ve decided I’ve finished with it and am ready to hand it over.

We use both Google Docs and spreadsheets in PleaseTech but only where the need for real-time multi-user access overrides all other considerations, and in 95% of cases (maybe 99 – I never counted) that doesn’t apply. So, for all those reasons above, I’m writing this blog post where I write all my documents: on my PC in Microsoft Word, and while I’m actually posting it, if the network connection drops or gets timed out, I can just paste it in again.

Disclaimer: other non-JavaScript Word processors are available. I am most definitely not a Microsoft shill – I hate the ribbon, I hate Windows 8, and I hate SharePoint, I’m not specifically attached to MS Word other than familiarity, and apart from WYSIWYG, I don’t really think the state-of-the-art in word processing has advanced that much since Word Perfect 5.1

 

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