OOo Off the Wall: What New Users Need to Know About OpenOffice.org
What do new users need to know about OpenOffice.org?
The question is worth asking. Any large piece of software has its own ways of doing things, and OpenOffice.org is no exception. In fact, because of its history and its design assumption that users are at least as interested in designing documents as in writing them, OpenOffice.org needs more orientation than most. OOo is not difficult to learn, but if you approach it expecting it to behave exactly like another office suite, especially MS Office, you are setting yourself up for frustration.
To orient themselves to OpenOffice.org, new users need to know its interface shortcomings and the limits of its on-line help. They also need to know the logic of its interface design and the importance of styles and templates in an efficient work flow. The more they know beforehand, the better the chance is that their first encounters with OpenOffice.org will go smoothly.
OpenOffice.org's long history has left it with three main interface standards:
The native one, as seen in the Border and Background tabs common to paragraphs in Writer, cells in Calc and objects in Draw.
The MS Office clone, such as the drawing toolbar in version 2.0.
Individual standards used by a single developer, such as the common design of Laurence Godard's wizards for installing new dictionaries and free fonts.
Any of these standards would be fine on their own. True, MS Office has more than its share of exhibits in the interface hall of shame, but copying it at least gives users a familiar environment. However, when mixed together, the result is an interface that is harder than it needs to be.
Moreover, to make matters worse, many parts of the interface fall into none of the three main levels. For example, in version 2.0, the warning that a Java Run Time environment is required is given in a pop-up window in Files > Document, but as part of the window's text in Tools > Mail Merge Wizard. Similarly, while styles are used in Writer to design page styles within the document, Impress and Draw use master slides, in which the design is set as an abstraction invisible in normal views of the file.
Because of these different interface standards, terminology in OpenOffice.org often is inconsistent. For example, "outline numbering" refers both to a type of list available in automatic numbering and numbering styles and to Tools > Outline Numbering, which sets up an altogether different type of outline numbering. Even more importantly, the latter manages which styles are used by several other tools.
Equally troublesome is the term "conditions". In the broadest sense, a condition simply is a set of circumstances under which a setting comes into effect. Yet, in practice, the word is applied to several different circumstances. In some cases, conditions are logical expressions that are set when a field or section is hidden; essentially, they're means to toggle a feature on or off. However, a conditional text field is one that specifically toggles two alternatives texts on and off. You would think that its name would be similar to the field that allows several alternative texts to be chosen. But, no, that is an input list, and it doesn't use conditionals at all. Then, in paragraph styles, "condition" is used to describe how the style's formatting changes in different contexts. All of these uses are related, but they are different enough that using the same term for all of them creates unnecessary difficulties.
Other confusing terminology includes:
Slides: the pages of a document in Draw. This usage probably reflects the close relation between Draw and Impress, but it is confusing when laying out brochures and other documents that also could be done in a word processor.
Numbering Styles: styles not only for numbered lists but also for bullet lists and quick outline numbering. Happily, this usage has been retired in version 2.0 in favor of the more accurate List Styles
Text Frames: a frame that is added without content for adding text and objects, as opposed to one added automatically when an object is added. Although the term is used in the Navigator, it is confusing because no menu item of that name is available. Instead, you choose Insert > Frame, which could refer to the object that encloses any object.
Faced with such interface consistencies, users may turn, naturally enough, to the OOo on-line help. However, while improving all the time, it has troubles of its own. Common complaints about the help include:
It doesn't always explain when features are unique to a particular operating system. For instance, because Windows supports the OLE standard while other operating systems do not, the Help contains references to using DDE Links that are unavailable under GNU/Linux.
It mentions features that are unavailable.
It does not mention features that are available.
Its explanations are incomplete, misleading or plain wrong.
It asssumes a level of knowledge about a subject that most users don't have.
These problems don't occur happen regularly, but they do occur often enough to be a concern.
To be fair to the writers, the on-line help is getting better with each release. In fact, version 2.0's help is looking to be the best yet. Still, the on-line help consists of 90,000 words; it's the size of a small novel. And, despite the strong efforts of the project's Documentation team, much remains to be done.
Fortunately, unlike the shortcomings of proprietary software, those in OpenOffice.org can be combatted. If any of those in OpenOffice.org really disturb you, join the project and file an issue here and then vote for the issue being resolved. You even can campaign for changes if you feel strongly enough.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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