July 5, 2007

OpenOffice.org charts undergo cosmetic surgery

Author: Bruce Byfield

OpenOffice.org suffers from a wildly inconsistent user interface (UI) that combines unique elements with borrowings from Microsoft Office. Now, in the upcoming version 2.3, it is finally having some of the cosmetic procedures it so badly needs -- at least in the charts subsystem. The changes include a new default color scheme and a heavily revamped wizard, but only small changes in functionality, making this revision a case study in UI design for both better and worse.

The most obvious change is the color scheme for graphs. In existing versions, the default colors are dull pastels that, in the words of one user I know, are "sooo 1993" -- a reference, presumably, to the colors you would find in Microsoft Excel around that time. To replace these colors, OpenOffice.org created 12 color schemes and allowed registered users to vote on them. The winning color palette leads off with bold yellow, blue, and red that are reminiscent of the default colors in KChart, and drags OpenOffice.org into the third millennium at last, showing, as a side benefit, how tastes have changed in the last 15 years of computing.

The changes in the Autformat chart window, while subtler, are a more interesting study in UI design. Both the new and the old chart wizards take four steps: specifying the chart type, data range, data series, and chart elements. The new chart subsystem begins with selecting the chart type, and the moves on to the data range, reversing the order of the first two windows in the old chart wizard for no apparent reason. If anything, selecting the data range seems a first logical step. And if the assumption is that users will select the data before adding a chart, why have the data range window anywhere?

However, as you zoom in, you soon notice that the new chart wizard does a thorough cleaning of the old one's interface, which was a cramped and dingy artifact that looks about the same vintage as the old default colors. In the window for selecting chart type, the preview is eliminated entirely in the new wizard, no doubt because the illustrations of the different chart types makes it redundant. Gone too are the buttons to set the data series in columns or rows, which are moved to the data series window where they more logically belong. Instead of separate radio buttons to display 2-D and 3-D graph types, a single one is used to toggle 3-D. Four, not eight, examples of each graph type are shown at any one time. Graph types, moreover, are visible at a glance from the selection pane -- an improvement on the old method of forcing readers to squint at a mouse rollover.

The only element that is not revamped is the lack of any explanation in the window of how some of the lesser-known graph types are read and why you might want to use them. For even a smattering of such information, you still have to search in the online help, or perhaps turn to Google or Wikipedia.

The data range window in the wizard is similarly simplified. The instructions in the old one about how to use the window are now eliminated. So is the option to place the chart in another sheet of the same spreadsheet, either because the feature was never used or because it is easy to cut and paste a chart onto another sheet. What is left are radio buttons for whether the data series is in rows or columns, and whether the first row or column should be treated as a label for the rest of the data. The result is a much cleaner window, especially since the remaining choices are arranged in a single column, rather than in the old wizard's unaligned two columns.

In the old wizard, the third window leads off with the opportunity to select variants of the chart type -- an option that the new interface folds into the selection of chart type, where it should be. What is left is a dedicated window for adjusting the axes of the graphs and their names.

The fourth window offers simplifications similar to those earlier in the wizard, eliminating check boxes for elements like chart and axis titles. Should you not want a particular title, all you need to do is leave its field blank. The old wizard's two buttons for selecting whether the data series is in a row or column are moved to the first window, and, after the remaining choices are tidied into a single column, enough room is left over for new controls for automatically positioning the legend for chart colors in relation to the graph, which saves the time required to move it manually after the chart is created.

About the only elements of the charting subsystem left unchanged are the navigational buttons for allowing you to move backwards and forwards in the wizard or to abort the process and display what you have already defined, and the detailed windows for customizing each element of the graph from the right-click menu.

Some users might question the loss of some of the old wizard's features, or the continued use of chart terms that, while familiar to professionals, are decidedly unfriendly to new users and may require a plunge into the online help. Unfortunately, too, like cosmetic surgery, the changes in the new charting subsystem sometimes seem only skin-deep. If they had to choose, most chart users would probably would have preferred an improved display, so that large-sized charts were displayed with smoother edges on the screen.

Yet, on the whole, the new wizard is a better-organized, less-intimidating makeover of the old version that illustrates the importance of interface design in improving the user experience. If other parts of OpenOffice.org could have similar makeovers -- and ones consistent with those in the chart subsystem -- then the change in ease of use would only be for the better.

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