Message to Microsoft: Fix Word’s cross-reference dialog box. Please.August 16, 2010
I use Microsoft Word — a lot. I’ve been using Word since the heady days of Word 2.0, and I’ve been using Word 2003 and more recently Word 2007 day in/day out for the past two years on my current contract. I’ve been getting up close and personal with Word, as evidenced by the number of blog posts I’ve written on Word’s idiosyncrasies. While there have been many improvements in Word 2007, there are areas that still have a way to go.
Most of the documents I’ve been working on for the past two years are long scientific reports — a single document can have hundreds of cross-references to figures, tables, plates, sections, appendices etc.
As a result I’ve opened the Cross-reference dialog box more times than I can count. And that dialog box alone sucks as far as usability is concerned (‘sucks’ is a technical term!). While there have been some improvements to this dialog box in Word 2007, there’s a lot about this dialog box that just doesn’t work efficiently. (NOTE: I have not used Word 2010 yet, so these comments are about Word 2007. I’d appreciate it if someone using Word 2010 can report if any of these issues have been fixed.)
So, if you’re listening Microsoft, here are 10 productivity improvements I’d like to see made to this dialog box (numbers are used for reference only — they do not imply priority or sequential order):
Update August 2016: There’s now an add-in for Word for PCs that solves most (all?) of these issues. See https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/word-cross-reference-manager-add-in-review/
- Remember dialog box resizing. In Word 2007, this dialog box is resizable (yay!). But don’t get too excited… When you close the dialog, the size you’ve dragged it to is not ‘remembered’, so as soon as you re-open the dialog, it’s back to its default size and you have to resize it again. This gets ‘old’ very quickly. Yes, I know I can keep the dialog box open while I’m doing other things in the document, but sometimes I need the screen real estate and so I’ll close it only to re-open it again a few minutes later, and have to resize it again.
- Resize the drop-down selection lists to fit the available selections. The current situation is just bad design, in my opinion. Even the default Reference type list includes more selections than are visible in the drop-down list. And if you’ve added more (e.g. Plate, Equation, Photograph), then the list is even longer. But someone, somewhere at Microsoft decided that this drop-down list would only ever display 6 items! Which means if you have a list longer than that, you have to scroll. Oh, and for bonus points, someone at Microsoft decided not to list these selection options in alphabetical order!
- Increase the number of items displayed by default. The default size of the dialog box only displays 12 items in the list of available headings, figures, tables etc. Long documents can easily have hundreds of headings. If there are only a few items in a particular document, then keep the default at 12, but if there are many more than 12, make the default something like 30 items. Surely a simple if/then statement in the code could make this possible? Of course, if Word remembered the dimensions of my resized dialog box (see item 1 above), this point about the default number would become moot.
- Give me the option to expand/collapse headings. As mentioned in item 3 above, a long document can have hundreds of headings. Some documents I’ve worked on have 30+ subheadings (at various levels) within a major heading. If I need to set a ‘heading’ cross-reference to section 22.214.171.124, then I really don’t want to scroll through every heading in sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 as I do now. Yes, I know I can type the first character of the heading I want and skip to the beginning of that section quickly (e.g. type 8 to go to the 8.x headings if using an outline numbered list), but I still have to scroll to get further down to section 126.96.36.199. If this list had expand/collapse functionality, then I could collapse all headings I didn’t want to see and just expand the section I was cross-referencing. Of course, ‘collapse all’/’expand all’ options should be available too. By the way, typing the first character only works effectively in the Heading and Numbered Item lists; however, if your table and figure lists start with the words Table or Figure, then typing a number or letter does nothing, and you have to scroll.
- Hide Reference Types not used in the document. This one is related to item 2 above. The documents I’ve been working on don’t use footnotes or endnotes, yet these are listed in the Reference type list. Why? If the document doesn’t use them, then they shouldn’t be available for selection. If I want to reference something in another document, then I can’t do it via this dialog box anyway.
- Remember my ‘Insert reference to’ preference for each Reference Type. This one is REALLY annoying. Because I switch between inserting cross-references to figures, tables, sections etc. within a section of text, I’d like Word to remember my Insert reference to preference FOR EACH TYPE while I’m in the current session. It can forget my preferences after I close Word, but while I’m working I’d like it to remember each insert preference for each Reference Type. Let me give you an example of how it works now:
- I select Table as my Reference type, then Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference, then I select the table.
- Let’s say the next item I have to insert a cross-reference to is another table. I can leave the dialog open, select another table and the Heading number (no context) selection also applied. So far, so good.
- The next cross-reference is a Figure, so I select Figure as my Reference type, then Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference, then I select the figure.
- Now I have to cross-reference another table. You’d think that Word would remember my previous table insert preference, but it doesn’t. I have to select Table and Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference AGAIN.
- And if the next one is a figure, I have to repeat that.
- Repeat for all the other Reference type/insert combinations. With potentially hundreds of cross-references in a single document, and hundreds of documents, this one gets old real fast.
- Let me set default Reference type/Insert combinations. Perhaps a better option than ‘remembering’ my most recently used Reference Type/Insert combination (see item 6 above) would be a setting where I could set my default Insert preferences for each Reference Type — that way, I could set it up once and not have to bother with it again. I’d still have the option for changing the insert options for an individual cross-reference, but the defaults would apply otherwise. This setting could go under Word Options > Display settings, or Word Options > Advanced where everything else seems to get dumped. Update for Word 2013: This aspect has been improved a little — when you set, say Table > Only label and number, then close the dialog, when you reopen it in the same document or another document in the same Word session (yes, even a new document created after you set that x-ref combination), that setting holds the next time you open the dialog box.
- Provide an option to list Level 1 paragraph styles in the Heading list. My client uses a special style for Appendix headings. This style has its Outline Level paragraph setting set to Level 1 so that it gets picked up and displayed in the automatic Table of Contents. However, these appendices do not use a standard Heading 1 to 9 style so are not listed in the Reference Type list for Heading — to find the appendices, I have to select Numbered Item and scroll to the bottom of that list. The writers on my team are scientists, not Word experts — they invariably cannot find the appendices when inserting cross-references, so they have to ask me to fix them.
- Let me assign ‘preserve formatting’ to the inserted cross-reference field from within this dialog box. Occasionally, and for no reason I can discover, the ‘preserve formatting’ option for an inserted cross-reference field goes missing. I don’t know whether it’s on insertion or something that an author does with it later (which is hard to believe as most of the authors I’m dealing with have no clue that these are fields, let alone how to fiddle with them). So a check box on this dialog to ‘preserve formatting’ might be useful as long as it didn’t mess up anything else with these fields (like become a toggle switch).
- Provide a double-click option to insert the cross-reference. When I find the correct table, figure, section cross-reference etc. to insert, I have to select it from the list, then click Insert; or select it then press the Tab key to go to the Insert button, then press Enter; or select it and press Enter. Another option I’d like for inserting a cross-reference is the ability to double-click the selection. With the existing options, you have to select the item (usually with the mouse), then do another one or two different actions (press a key, move and click the mouse) before you get the selection inserted. With a double-click option, double-clicking a selection would save mouse movements and prevent you having to switch from mouse to keyboard etc.
As I mentioned in my earlier blog post about the annoyances on this dialog box, these things would probably not bother someone doing the occasional insertion of a cross-reference. But for writers and editors working with long documents, reports, proposals, etc. who have to insert many cross-references, streamlining the functions of this dialog box would save many mouse movements and a LOT of frustration.
Does anyone know how to make suggestions to Microsoft? There used to be a ‘wish list’ address that was monitored, but I no longer know what that email or web address is, nor whether suggestions such as those above even get considered. If you know how to contact Microsoft, please comment below.
Update Nov 2013: Some information on merging cross-references, such as ‘Tables 4 to 8’ instead of ‘Table 4 to Table 8’:
Update September 2015: Five years and at least two versions of Word later and most of these issues remain… And there’s another one — if you have track changes on and delete the first character of a heading, then that heading isn’t shown in the list of Headings in the Cross Reference dialog box. It’s still listed in the Numbered Headings list, but that’s only applicable if you use outline numbered headings. See this post for the circumstances under which this occurs, and some workarounds: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/word-cross-reference-dialog-box-doesnt-show-some-headings/
[Links last checked September 2015]