Microsoft OneNote: Great program, interesting design flaw

By Brian Donohue | 5 Comments

We have distinct divide in our office: the MacBoys and the nonMac folks. The Mac users in our office fill the sterotype of a Mac user: they (ok, we) constantly berate Microsoft and frequently point out the cleverness of Apple products. One of the problems is that Microsoft is just such an easy target.

For example, when I typed the word “office” in my Apple iBook using MS Word, Word cleverly anticipates what I’m about to write: it suggests “Office 2004 Test Drive User”.

Example of multiple text sections.

Surprisingly, at least I guess to the Microsoft folk, that is not the phrase I wanted to use. Seriously, who could have ever thought that feature was a good idea? (We can probably blame someone in Marketing.) That’s what I mean by an easy target.

But here I want to focus on something that Microsoft has done particularly well. It’s their little publicised program OneNote. OneNote is basically a note-taking program. At first glance, and upon initial consideration, it’s hard to imagine why it’s helpful. Essentially it provides you a canvas where you can type, or add pretty much any type of content, anywhere. And you organise multiple pages in a variety of ways. So what’s so great about that?

Microsoft OneNote is actually liberating.

The freedom it provides by providing a canvas means you can focus on your thinking rather than on how it looks. And the basic note-taking features (which are similar to outline view in Word, but superior) enable you to easily reorganise and reorder your thoughts. It’s an ideal pre-first-draft program, where you can do your initial brain dump, and gradually build it up. It’s a place where you can put a lot of unconnected thoughts that you don’t want to lose, but don’t know yet where to fit them in. “Clarity of writing follows clarity of thought” said someone, somewhere. And that’s exactly what OneNote helps you do.

One of the critical features is that it lets you add text sections horizontally as well as vertically. Easier to show than explain:

Example of multiple text sections.

I use it all the time now (I use a PC at work), and the rest of the PC users in our office are starting to make a habit of it as well. You just need to try it to understand it. It really makes a difference.

This isn’t to say there aren’t problems with it. The inability to create standard style formats for list levels is a real oversight. But I’m willing to put up with those because of all the advantages.

Also, OneNote isn’t available for Mac (which is a real annoyance for me, since I have Mac at home and a PC at the office), but there are several similar programs for the Maccies: Omni Outliner is probably the most popular of them.

The interesting design flaw

One major change that the OneNote designers introduced was to eliminate the concept of Save. You don’t save in OneNote. You can’t save in OneNote. In theory this makes sense — people shouldn’t have to save all the time. And particularly in a program like OneNote, versioning isn’t likely to be an issue, so autosave makes sense. Alan Cooper talked about the need for using automatically saving a document in About Face 2.0. He even outlined a new File menu, which OneNote is pretty similar to.

But the kicker is that the lack of save creates a major problem for new users.

I experienced it myself when first using it, and I had to look it up in the Help files to find out what the story was ("OneNote saves your work continuously while you use it."). But the significance of this issue was brought home to me last week when Ann Marie, who was using OneNote for the first time, called me over.

"Brian, how do I save this document?"

"Oh yeah, well you don’t need to save with OneNote."

"What do you mean there’s no save? There has to be a save."

"Trust me, I’ve used this program a lot. You don’t need to save."

"Are you absolutely, positively sure I won’t lose this information? I can just close OneNote and it will be there when I reopen it? You’re sure? You’re sure you’re sure?"

It was a similar situation when Morgan used it for the first time. Even when you have someone telling you it’ll be fine, it’s still worrying. It’s of course much worse if you’re learning it on your own.

This is great example of the pain you can cause by going against convention. Some things are practically hard-coded in the way we expect programs and websites to work, and the need to save is one of these.

So what should Microsoft do? Well any user test would have undoubtedly brought this issue up, and they should have realised that relying on Help for such a critical issue simply isn’t good enough.

Maybe they should put in a greyed out “Save” option on the File menu. When you click it, a dialog box displays and explains how you don’t need to save. Then you could choose to have the Save option removed from the menu. I think that would do the job.

If you’re going to break with convention, you need to be sure your users are crystal clear on how the new piece works.


5 responses to “Microsoft OneNote: Great program, interesting design flaw

  1. Hey Brian. Thanks for the kinds words. About the Save thing. We actually did consider putting a dummy Save button in the UI as a crutch to help people who felt they had to Save. But in the end we couldn’t bring ourselves to waste prime UI real estate for a button that didn’t actually do anything. We did, however, decide not to “beep” when you hit Ctrl-S :-). FWIW, in our tests although lots of people just dive into OneNote without being anguished over the lack of the Save button, the people who had trouble with the concept finally got up the gumption to close OneNote, then open it, and after that they were OK. This is a one-time thing for most people. As a fairly emotionally charged moment in ther OneNote usage, we also felt that it would help form a bond with the program – which in some ways it has. We have people raving to their friends about how great the lack of the Save button is – would they have been so positive if they hadn’t felt a little fear at first? :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris. It’s great to hear the inside scoop on how the actual design decisions were made. And that’s an interesting point that the initial angst helps to create a bond with the program once they get the over the you-can’t-save hump.

    But I’d still suggest that a better design would be to prevent this angst entirely. Steve Krug says, “Don’t make me think.” I think we can add to that: “Don’t make me angst”. I think an initial message that could appear when someone tries to save the first time would be sufficient to make someone grasp the significance of the concept. And then they could rave to their friends without having had to go through the little spell of fear.

  3. Brian, when you say, “someone tries to save the first time”, that implies we have to provide a dummy way to save (other than Ctrl-S) as a trigger for the alert, which we didn’t want to do because of the wasted UI space. Or, we put the dummy buttons there, then show you the alert, then after you promise you read it (most people don’t), we could remove the wasteful buttons I suppose. A lot of work for a solution that wouldn’t really succeed for many people who don’t read alerts, and would freak them even more if the button was removed after they clicked it once – (I could swear it was there a moment ago!). In the end the tests we did with real people showed that people just got over the hump and there were bigger fish for us to fry than fine tuning this one-time thing. FWIW, our new OneNote Guide Notebook does mention that you don’t need to save. There’s a chance people might read that before they do anything significant they want to save.

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