The cost of Microsoft Word

July 6, 2006

I was having a discussion yesterday with some work colleagues about how Microsoft Word wants to think for you, and unexpectedly does things you don’t want it to do – like rearrange the indentation on auto bullets and numbering. And the cost of this “bug” to employee and employers alike.

Word is fairly ubiquitous throughout the business environment. Why? Because it makes it very easy for complete novices to create a document.

But that same ‘ease of use’ is also Word’s downfall, and what makes it so productivity-sapping.

As an example, I was talking with a prospective client last week. The CEO of this small company told me that he’d spent a week writing their new 74-page business plan… and TWO weeks reformatting it and fighting Word to get it to all look good. That’s two weeks of a CEO’s time (…and why they’d asked me in to help them!). Put an hourly rate on that two weeks for that person and you’ve got a lot of money wasted just because Word wants to take control of your document.

Of course, Word makes a lot of things easy for the novice – such as the auto bullets and numbering mentioned earlier. But just these two things are hidden with dangers that novice users don’t know about or understand. And these dangers cause them untold grief, a lot of wasted time, and huge amounts of frustration. Add to the mix the default “Match formatting” option, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Especially as Word doesn’t enforce the use of styles, which means that most of the world creates documents that are “Normal” with manually-applied character formatting.

If you tried to do the sums on what it costs the business world every day for people to fight Word into submission (a valiant but unwinnable cause), you’d come up with a staggering sum of money – enough to run a small country for a few years, I’d guess. EVERY DAY.

If Microsoft spent only a small fraction of Bill’s billions on fixing the frustrations in Word, they’d have happier customers who would be much less likely to bad mouth them. Ordinary Joe Bloggs in an ordinary office probably couldn’t give two hoots about Windows security (though the tech community gets pretty agitated about it) – they just want Word to work!

BTW, I gave up fighting Word a few years back. I rarely use it to create personal documents any more, and never use it for client work. Instead, I use AuthorIT and publish my paper-based documents to Word. The styles work, the bullets and numbers work, the Table of Contents works, etc. and I don’t have to deal with Word on a daily basis. Once I’ve set up my Word template, that’s it – I’m done!

Update 12 September 2008: Thanks to Wade C for sharing this graphic:

This graph says it all...

This graph says it all...


  1. At my last job, I got to the point where I dreaded opening the help projects for our software (help projects were RoboHelp/Word) because every time I did, I discovered that the numbering on a bunch of my step-by-step procedures had been messed with by Word. Sometimes, the numbering in one procedure continued from the point where the numbering of a previous procedure had left off; sometimes that procedure was in the topic immediately prior to the one that had been corrupted, sometimes (oddly) it was one that was three or four topics back. Every time I went in to the help projects, I spent anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours straightening the mess.

    In my current job, I blew 2.5 hours fighting with page numbers that included chapter/section number prefixes. Once again, the “auto numbering” was resetting improperly. A colleague had spent about the same amount of time fighting with this problem before I did. Finally, I had to sit and go through 22 document templates to fool with page footers and change all the page numbers to consecutive numbering (with no chapter/section number prefix). All because Word tried to think for me, and then couldn’t generate a correct TOC from its own mess.

    The same co-worker, in the same week, had to fight with Word’s TOC function, which was dumping graphics and text into the TOC itself. We traced the problem to the fact that Word, by default, was including 4 levels in the TOC — not the 3 that people typically include. This wasn’t a matter of Word thinking for the user — it was a matter of Word not having a clue how people in the real world work. My co-worker blew 75 minutes on the problem before coming to me. He’d never even thought of digging through dialog boxes to see how many hierarchical levels Word was including by default.

    I don’t know how much money Microsoft invested in its efforts to include XML tools with Microsoft Office or most of the other whizbangs it was proud to debut with Office 2003. What I do know is that even the most technical people I know never use these tools and don’t care much about them. They want their numbering left alone, their indents to be consistent, their page numbering to work with chapter number prefixes, outlining to be predictable, mail merge to be more intuitive, revision mode to have more “history” tools, Normal.dot templates that don’t get corrupted so easily, a Style Organizer that is intuitive, and files that don’t crash when they have more than three graphics in them.

    Now…if only Microsoft would listen…

  2. Ask and you shall receive. From the Word 2007 online help:

    1. Click the Microsoft Office Button , and then click Word Options.

    2. Click Proofing.

    3. Click AutoCorrect Options, and then click the AutoFormat As You Type tab.

    4. Under Apply as you type, select or clear the Automatic bulleted lists check box or the Automatic numbered lists check box.

  3. Thanks Derek, but what if you’ve already done all this, and *still* Word wants to think for you and take over your document? I’ve seen it happen too many times…

  4. I’ve been working with Word as my primary tool for publishing manuals for a number of years and I’ve learned how to use it. It doesn’t do anything I don’t expect because I’ve taken the time to learn what controls the default behaviors. All of these things are manageable… Microsoft has made assumptions about the way the majority of users would want it to behave. But it also has controls built in that allow you to alter those default behaviors. Once you learn how to control those behaviors, you won’t have any more trouble.

  5. Well, suum cuique, as they used to say. I’ve used Word, I’ve used Frame, they both have idiosyncrasies, but extremist dialog like this is a disservice to a word processor that tens of millions of people use every day without thinking much about it. As a technical writer, I’ve written (literally) 100,000 word-count documents with many graphics, tables, indices, fields, bookmarks, numbered lists ad infinitum, etc., without much problem, and I know a good number of other folks in that field who have done the same.

    So, I respectfully suggest that this is a one-sided comment masquerading via straw man comments as a balanced set of observations. The tendentious response to Derek, who offered a perfectly viable suggestion (one that I have personally used hundreds of times without ever having Word mysteriously return auto-numbering/bulleting from the dead) strengthens my assertion, as it simply says, if I may paraphrase, “Oh, yeah, well, it doesn’t work that way for me. . .”

    Something you might find of use is that Word 2003 and beyond *does* (excuse me, I should say “can”) enforce the use of styles. Go to Tools\Protect and choose “limit formatting to a selection of styles” (there are other options and you can pick the styles you want. The styles you pick are the only styles that Word will allow in the document.

    And, by the way, not often, but perhaps 20% of the time, I *want* more than 3 TOC levels. And, yeah, I’ve gotten graphics in there, because I occasionally get carried away and apply a TOC’d paragraph style to an inline graphic, which is almost certainly what your friend did, and something that happens a good bit.

    Sure, Word’s not the perfect solution. Frame’s not the perfect solution. A hammer’s not the perfect solution if you’re trying to unscrew a fitting.

  6. Jeff Lemkin said, “I’ve taken the time to learn what controls the default behaviors.”

    OK, but how do we mortals do that? The information seems to be scattered about in forums, Microsoft’s MVP site, and Word online help.

    I had to create a large template and my company wouldn’t send me to a class. Some people’s jobs depend on their ability to use Word productively, but Word can make it very hard.

    That’s why people get so frustrated over Word.

    Jean Prince

  7. In response to Jean Prince’s comment: I did *not* say “I’ve taken the time to learn what controls the default behaviors” – that was the previous comment by Mike Starr, with which I am in total accord. That’s what documentation professionals do — indeed, any professionals — they take the time to learn how to use the tools.

    Word has tons of help available. I can certainly understand becoming frustrated with Word, because it has so many many options (much like Frame, another excellent document processing tool). Nonetheless, the bottom line to me is this: If you’re using Word to write letters or brief documents w/o much in the way of complex formatting requirements, then Word does (IMO) a good job of making that very easy.

    If, on the other hand, you’re a professional writer, using Word to create complex documents with complex formatting requirements, then Word does (again, IMO) a good job of making a LOT of information available to help you accomplish your task. What’s wrong with online Help? What’s wrong with forums? What’s wrong with the MVP site? I don’t think it’s unreasonable that a large, complex application should have a wide range of help available — I think it’s a plus. You should *see* what kind of help is available for Oracle 8, as an example, or even SQL Server.

    I don’t mean to instigate any kind of flaming, but I honestly do feel that Microsoft and Word offer a great deal of useful assistance that’s pretty well organized and in which you can usually find a useful response to almost any question you might have. So, for that matter, does FrameMaker.

  8. First, I realise that I have failed as a tech communicator! My original post didn’t set the scene, so you may have assumed I was talking about tech writing “colleagues”, when in fact was talking about “work colleagues” NONE of whom are tech writers, but all of whom must use Word to write reports and the like.

    For these work colleagues, Word is just one of many tools they use to get their work done; for some, it’s a tool they use only occasionally. As a professional writer, I MUST know how to use Word to get my job done efficiently. But these people don’t; it’s not even one of their job requirements.

    My post was triggered by a work colleague wanting to know why Word did what it did… and if I could fix it (yes, as the lone writer I’ve ended up with the “Word guru” hat in every organisation where I’ve worked whether I want it or not!). And the idea for the post was originally put in motion by the discussion with the potential client just the week before.

    As a contractor, I make some of my living out of helping others with Word issues – money I wouldn’t make if Word’s settings weren’t as hidden as they sometimes are. These clients pay me for my knowledge – knowledge I have gleaned through trial and error over many years of using Word, MVP lists, forums, online Help, and so on. Am I an expert in Word? Not in my estimation, but enough of an expert in the eyes of others that I get called on to “fix it”, usually when they’ve given up trying (and boy, have some of them tried almost every setting you could think of!). When I do “fix it”, I try to use that moment as an opportunity to explain to the frustrated user why Word did what it did (if I know), in the hope that maybe some learning will occur.

    So, coming back to the original post – I was venting my frustrations with Word and how it is used (and perceived) by *general* users sitting in offices and homes around the world, NOT how it is used by professional writers. That said, I have seen enough ‘un-styled’ resumes done in Word by supposedly “intermediate-to-advanced Word” users to realise that even some of those who claim to be professional writers cannot use Word beyond what I would consider to be a novice level.

    DEREK: I apologise if my response seemed to be dismissive. That was not my intention. Sometimes the problem is deeper than the setting you mentioned, especially if the user has delved into the List galleries and tried all sorts of things before asking for help.

    MIKE: I agree. But for the ad hoc user, learning these settings and tricks is not seen as a priority. Word definitely makes it easy to create a document without learning this stuff. Your point about “Microsoft has made assumptions about the way the majority of users would want it to behave.” is exactly my point – they’ve made assumptions, but IMHO these assumptions don’t always fit with what the user wants to do… thus the frustration.

    JEFF: Your comment that Word is “a word processor that tens of millions of people use every day without thinking much about it” goes back to my orginal post about the cost to productivity in the hands of those tens of millions of users. For those who know Word – and its idiosyncracies – it increases productivity; but for those who don’t (which IMHO is the vast majority of users), it can consume way more hours than should be necessary. Humans tend not to want to admit to failure, so many people will fight with it and not ask for help. And thanks also for the reminder about the enforcing of styles in Word 2003 – I’d forgotten that (most of my clients still use earlier versions).

  9. I’ve fought Word for years. My battle scars earned me a certification as a Word Expert. It is the only software tool used regularly that can get me swearing… and that, inside of 5 minutes. I’m using it at my new job.

    Autonumbers aren’t the only problem area, where I find myself going through the same sequence of dialog boxes several times to get a change to stick. Sometimes I tried to be clever by doing numbered lists via Outline Numbering several levels down, but Outline Numbering and Numbered lists can conflict. I’ve seen cases where Word prevented me from manually restarting the numbering in a list. I had to change some heading somewhere in front of the list to gain that control.

    That being said, I had the automatic cross-references as well. Even if you highlight it and press F9, it won’t always update. Just this last Friday, I had to fix cross-references in a document for the fifth time, because the reference link got greedy and started grabbing whole sections (instead of the numbered item.)

    Variables in Word are another cause for colorful language. I tried to be smart once by using the variables associated with the document properties, like “Document Title” and “Author”. I put a reference to them in the headers/footers. Guess what? When you Ctrl+A and then F9, it does not update field codes in headers/footers. You have to go into those manually. What a crock! Plus, it was a pain to call up the properties dialog box to set them (and other unique variables I defined.) So maybe I expend some efforts to create a form or control item that can set those properties… and then you’re faced with Microsoft security shutting down macros due to security threats.

    I waste a lot of time doing things three or four time, and in double-checking rounds precisely because cross-references get broken after a new TOC is generated.

    I never have this problem in FM. I never have problems with numbered lists or outline numbering. I never have problems importing formatting from other documents.

    I’m a lone writer at my new job. Despite them being huge, I may never make the case to use another tool other than Word (other than WebWorks ePublisher to output to other formats.)

    I guess what really bothers me is that I’ve been using Word from the days before it was in Windows. I used it from the DOS command line; I used it in a Mac; I used it in the first unstable versions of Windows where you couldn’t tell if it was Word or the operating system that caused your computer to crash. The amazing thing is that Word has persistent bugs and quirks even from those days that you have to learn by word of mouth. If they didn’t give it away for free and bundle it with the operating system on enterprise computers, it would be on its last legs.

    Here’s hoping that the much herolded and half-a-decade delayed Longhorn/Vista either solves the problems or signals their downfall (in favor of Linspire and Open Office).

  10. Glenn: A trick I discovered for updating the fields in headers and footers is to display the document in Normal view (NOT page layout view). Once in Normal view, do the CTRL+A, F9 thing and EVERYTHING gets updated – including the headers and footers.

  11. I agree with sandgroper14’s original position: the use of MS Word by casual users in the business environment represents a HUGE drain on productivity. I used to work in sales for a multinational telecom equipment manufacturer, and the number of hours I spent helping my colleagues overcome Word’s capricious, unpredictable “features” were uncountable. And we were all in a 6-figure pay bracket.

    I know there are Word gurus out there who can make it dance, but the amount of effort it takes to get to that stage has simply not been worth it for me. If you just want to drive a Chevy across town, you shouldn’t have to learn so much about it that you could disassemble and reinstall the transmission, too. I use Word for memos and short reports; nothing longer. I would never take a tech-writing job that required me to use Word as the principal tool; life is too short.

    I have a report in my files that was written by Chris King of RIMS, Inc., on whether Frame or Word was the better choice for their documentation department. It is somewhat dated (1999), but overall the conclusions are still valid, IMO. One of my favourite quotes comes from the supporting documents included in the report. The author was Candace Bamber of Castek Software Factory. This is what she had to say about MS Word and productivity:

    “I’ve maintained a private database of “time it takes to do stuff” since my first freelance writing job 13 years ago (very useful for estimating stuff, but that’s another issue). About 18 months ago, my then-team switched from Word to FrameMaker. My numbers indicate that:
    1. Within 2 months we had leveled off at about a 35%-40% increase in productivity (total production time per page) for a group of five people. Frame paid for itself and made a profit for us in a hurry in this case.
    2. This FrameMaker team beat the productivity on other Word teams I’ve led/worked in by anywhere from 10% to 50% (NOTE: tool isn’t the only consideration; other factors had an influence as well).
    3. In no cases did a Word team come up with better productivity than this FrameMaker team.
    Data not scientific as I only have data for one FrameMaker team.”

  12. First of all, I agree with Mike Starr. Word doesn’t do anything you don’t want it to do, if you learn how to use the tools. The reality is that most Word users are barely beyond novice or intermediate users.

    I have been working with MS Word for more than 25 years, and the primary issue with numbering, indentation, and other issues is typically caused by manual changes to a Word style. Using the manual buttons in the main menu creates these disasters everyone is talking about. Manual formatting from the main menu and using preformatted styles do not mix!

    I have created prebuilt styles templates for Word documents and taught the end users how to use them effectively. Guess what? Almost no problems and productivity does increase dramatically! The real problem is training. I would like to know how many people in an organization actually get Word training? I know the answer to that question…None!

    I am really frustrated with end users that tells me they are experts with Word. NOT! When querying dozens of people about styles usage, virtually all of them have no clue how create, use, or modify them for a template.

    I agree with the loss in productivity time that everyone is talking about. One day I opened up a document that my company had created and found out there were more than 250 Word styles. If I had to guess, more than 90% of Word users have no clue how to use styles or pre-format documents.

    Another issue with Word that I agree with you all on is the fact that Word creates its own styles simply from changes made from the menu buttons. Everyone, and I do mean almost everyone, believes that formatting should occur from the menu buttons. Right? Wrong! Well, kind of. They should only be used when creating templates…period! When I trained end users, I had one rule. ***Only two or three menu buttons should ever be used when creating a document. Formatted Word docs should come from a template.

    Another thing I did was show users how to view only the styles used in the template (document), by setting Styles Options to In Document. I also showed them how to modify duplicated styles and remove the unused ones. I also showed them how to recover a style if it was deleted from the template by accident.

    Finally, and most importantly, I wrote a manual on all of it so that everyone would understand how styles are used, how to name, modify, and create the Styles effectively. I showed them how to bypass the usual Word renaming convention, which occurs almost always when using those dreaded menu buttons I told them not to use.

    By the way, outlined numbered and numbered lists do not conflict if you use Styles the way they are intended.

    OK, since Mike Starr and I have a grip and we are both technical writers…maybe he would like to collaborate on a new instruction manual, which I have already written, by the way. Mike, maybe you and I can make some extra cash showing people how it really works…in one day!

    Ken W.

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