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Keep it simple, stupid: Word and OpenOffice.org fail simplicity test, but Notes passes

Sun 5 Nov 2006, 08:43 AM



by Ben Langhinrichs
One of the real frustrations about working with Office suites these days is that too much is geared to the complex, but most users are stuck back at the basic.  I have commented before on merging table cells as a technique just beyond basic, so I thought I'd see how each word processor would handle merging cells and then splitting them up again.  The contenders are Lotus Notes 6.5.3 (which is on this machine, although 7.0.2 doesn't have any real difference in this area, afaik), Microsoft Word 2007 (beta) and OpenOffice.org 2.0.2.  I would tell you what beta version of MS Word I am using, but like almost everything in MS Word 2007, the About document is almost impossible to find if you don't already know where it is.  I couldn't find it.

The test I designed was simply to create a simple table with three rows and four columns , then merge four cells and split them again.  I picked this test partly because, as I have already written, I think the ODF way of merging rows is terrible, so I wanted to bend over backward to make sure I was not simply cherry picking an example where OpenOffice.org would do better.

The original table (which looks pretty much the same in Notes, Word and OOo)
The original table in all word processors

It was easy to create the table in all three applications, with only slight variations on where and how to create and designate a table.

The merged table (which also looks pretty much the same in all three word processors)
The table with merged cells

Again, so far so good.  Merging is done a bit differently in the different word processors, but not so differently that it is hard to figure out what to do.  Essentially, select the table cells you want to merge and look around for how to merge them (on the table menu or through right click).

But here is where things get messier.  Real users who want to change this table at some later point will think, if they know anything about word processing as it has developed over time, that the opposite of "merge" is "split".  Therefore, a fairly common thing to do to merged cells is to split them.  In OpenOffice.org Writer, the Help document even says:
You can select adjacent cells, then merge them into a single cell. Conversely, you can take a large cell that has been created by merging single cells, and divide it back into individual cells.
That seems pretty straightforward.  But what happens when you actually go to split the cells?

Splitting the cells in OpenOffice.org Writer
The split cells dialog from OpenOffice Writer

This has to be one of the odder dialog boxes I have seen.  You can't tell because we happen to have merged two columns and two rows, but the Split cell into number doesn't default to the actual number of columns or rows originally merged, which would make sense.  Then, the concept of splitting horizontally and vertically seems switched, although there is a helpful image to guide you on what they mean.  The Into equal proportions checkbox seems unclear, and only works for horizontal merging (e.g., rows).  Finally, there is no way to split both horizontally and vertically.

What about a Return to original cells button?  Or call it Unmerge.  Since the most common thing to do with a merged set of cells is to unmerge them, why make it so difficult?

Nonetheless, I could at least Split horizontally (rows), then Split each set vertically (columns) to get back to my original.  It took three dialog boxes and knowing how many rows and columns there were originally, but it was possible.

Splitting the cells in Microsoft Word 2007 (beta)
The split cells dialog from MS Word

At first glance, the dialog box from Microsoft Word is better.  You can actually split both columns and rows, although I will note that there is still no way to know how many original rows and columns there were, and there is no way to simply Unmerge.  Still, I thought a user could just unmerge all cells in a single dialog.  Unfortunately, that led to the following table:
Broken re-merged table in Word
and no way to fix that up.  You could also Split cells into columns and rows separately, as in OpenOffice.

So, buggy, strange and unable to simply revert to the original state.

Splitting the cells in Lotus Notes 6.5.3
The Split cell menu item from Lotus Notes

Click it, and all the cells are back to where they were.  Simple.

Of course, it could be argued that Word and OpenOffice both allow splitting of cells that were not originally merged, and that is a powerful feature.  But by any reasonable measure of the Keep it simple, stupid! rule, both fail miserably.  Personally, I think they could both redeem themselves by just adding an Unmerge to original button in the dialog box, but given that you can split cells that were not merged, etc. etc,, it is hard to even know what the original was.

Copyright 2006 Genii Software Ltd.

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