‘Styles’ in text formatting software – why don’t people make use of them?

A session at Information Design conference 2009

Friday 3rd April, 2009

9:30am to 9:30am (GMT)

Word-processing and page make-up software typically provide the opportunity for their users to set up paragraph styles and character styles, or use sets of them that are already available in the software. Typically the styles could be for ‘body text’, ‘level 2 heading’, ‘bullet list’ etc., and they store rules for the typographic formatting, pagination behaviour, and other attributes of those document elements.

Using Styles in such software brings many benefits – among them, consistency of formatting, efficiency of graphic production, and the ability to modify the appearance of all examples of an element (all subheadings, for example) across a whole document. It is therefore somewhat mystifying that people generally don’t use them. Why?

For information designers, the issue is a challenge whenever we are asked to set up templates for client organisations, so their employees can use them to make publications and other information products. For those who work in software interface design, the question arises whether the Styles feature is inadequately represented in the interface of these programs; or whether there is a profound mismatch between the Styles feature and users’ mental model of how text is formatted. In the latter case, there is probably a link to whether users have a concept of the structure of texts.

There must be some reason to explain why so many people, from students to civil servants, are producing elaborately formatted documents in Microsoft Word where every paragraph uses the style Normal with local formatting overrides. The authors have started an ongoing programme of research to discover why.

The project involves a study of the different ways that Styles work and are represented in the interfaces of 8–10 different WP/DTP programmes, and interviews with students, educators and self-taught users. Especially for the third group, a relevant question is – how ‘educational’ is the interface itself?

This study has implications for education, whether at the ‘computer literacy’ level of ECDL certification – where Styles are not currently on the curriculum – or the more professional level of education in graphic design and technical communication.

About the speaker

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Conrad Taylor

information design, multimedia, information and knowledge management bio from Twitter

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Time 9:30am9:30am GMT

Date Fri 3rd April 2009

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