Without going into details, Microsoft has given a taste of what the next designs of its office applications are heading for.
Microsoft revealed, in a blog post, its intentions for future versions of Microsoft 365 and its Office applications, combining a flexible ribbon and a more muted color design with adaptive controls and a greater presence of features based on artificial intelligence. In his statement, Office 365 lead designer Jon Friedman said some of the changes are in the works, while others are just exploratory. Friedman doesn’t provide a timeline more specific than “a year or two,” but it’s likely to be a full Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) suite upgrade.
Microsoft has continuously updated Office over time and fortunately, because the personal license increases to 55.2€ HT per year. In 2018, the innovation came from Microsoft Search, the search bar that sits atop apps like Outlook and SharePoint. Last year, Microsoft introduced Fluid Framework, a way to turn all Office documents into documents that can be continuously updated. This year, Microsoft decided to make this technology open source, but explained that one of the ways Fluid will work will be to integrate tables, graphs and to-do lists into Outlook in web version, so that the figures of sales, project tasks and research reports are always up to date.
This is what Word might look like on a tablet, without eye-catching colors. (Credit: Microsoft)
What’s new in Office?
Microsoft kicked off its Inspire partner conference this week with even more improvements to Microsoft 365 apps and especially Teams. Mr. Friedman looks further: “We’ve embarked on a years-long design journey to create more focused and immersive experiences, from Simple Ribbon to Dark Mode to Fluent UI frameworks.” It seems that the publisher’s goal is to strip Microsoft 365 of some of its visual elements. “The next wave of UX changes will go even further by toning down the brand colors of app headers and exploring adaptive command. A flexible ribbon that progressively reveals contextually relevant commands at the right time, right where you need them. We will further advance our transparent, cross-sectional research to put relevant information at your fingertips, and a myriad of future experiences will leverage Fluid Frameworks,” added Friedman.
A design video that Friedman shared in his post features Office apps spread across a tabbed interface: apps like Word and PowerPoint may exist in the same window. If that were to happen, it would be the embodiment of Microsoft Sets, a tabbed interface for the Windows UI that surfaced in 2017 and then disappeared without warning.
What documents might you want to share within Teams? According to Microsoft, AI can help you narrow down your choices. (Credit: Microsoft)
In Redmond, we are also thinking about how users can express their personality virtually through Microsoft’s collaborative applications. “Our tools have long supported the expression of your ideas, but as work and life converge, you may want to communicate who you are beyond an avatar photo,” Friedman writes, “themes and from more artistic contexts to exploring how a person can express their gender, culture or hobbies, we design more authentic and inclusive connections between people”.
Microsoft is already using AI to suggest design options, and it looks like it’s going to get more sophisticated over time. (Credit: Microsoft)
Since Cortana’s debut in Windows 10, AI has been gaining momentum in Microsoft’s apps and we can expect to see more with future updates. If some of these improvements seem difficult to define, some commands between applications should appear: PowerPoint, for example, could embed a specific Teams channel to simplify feedback on this kind of document.
Excel will be able to detect any errors and propose corrections within a spreadsheet. (Credit: Microsoft)
Other plans, on the other hand, are more grounded. Mr. Friedman specifically indicated that Excel will begin to recognize errors and offer alternatives, and that the Planner app will have the ability to automatically suggest dates based on what it knows about a task. Given what has been done with additions like Microsoft Search, it is very likely that the publisher will spread these changes over time; probably slowly, and quite dispersed throughout the application environment. Although the timeline is unclear, these glimpses into the future of Microsoft 365 are intriguing.