A dozen things wrong with Word 2011’s Find/Replace function

I’m searching for something nice to say about Word 2011’s Find/Replace approach, but I’m too overwhelmed by what’s wrong with it to highlight the one thing I do like. It takes umpteen keystrokes to just get to the old Find and Replace dialog (and do I mean old!) which is not only where I need to do most of my search operations, but the only place you can do certain searches. But even way before that, the “simplified” approach is unfriendly, inconsistent, and buggy across its three – yes, three – different locations for dealing with searches. Join me for the tour (de farce).

You should understand the available Find/Replace procedures so you can put my complaints in context:

The new search field in the toolbar, à la Safari or the Finder. Command-F activates it, so it’s a simple matter to hit Command-F, type your search term, and get results – and, as in Safari and the Finder, you don’t even have to press Return to get the search going; it starts searching while you’re still typing.

The Find and Replace sidebar. The nice touch about Word 2011’s new approach to searches is that you have the option to have the hits listed in the sidebar, a multi-function area that can also display: the document map that’s been available for Word several versions now; the page thumbnails, as in 2008; revisions on a tracked document (I love that); and all the hits for a search term, similar to Preview’s sidebar display (I can love that, too). It’s a great overview of all the hits so you can scan them in context and then click on the one you want to jump to.

The top of the sidebar has a Find and Replace area with Find and Replace fields, a short list of commands (“Ignore Case”, for instance) in an Action menu, and Find, Replace, and Replace All buttons.

The Find and Replace dialog. The old Find and Replace dialog. And do I mean old! Hasn’t changed a whit since Word 2004, and maybe before that. Really? In all that time, no one at Microsoft could see how to improve this dialog? No one? Seriously?!)

1. No feedback when something’s selected

The new search field is not a Bad Thing. In fact, it can be handy for basic searches, and, matched with the new approach of displaying hits in the sidebar, it has great promise. It is, however, poorly implemented.

Hit Command-F to activate it, type your search term, and matches in your document are highlighted. Works like a charm – unless you have something selected in the document.

In previous versions of Word, a search would be done starting within the selection and then you’d be asked if you want to continue the search beyond it; but with the search field… nothing happens. Unless you count a brief flash of the selection highlight as something, in which case I’ll amend that statement to “nothing useful happens”—and you only get that if you happen to press Return while the field’s active. You get no search results, nor even the courtesy of a dialog letting you know what’s going on – or, in this case, what’s not going on.

[This “selection first, then ask if the search should be continued” feature still works when the Find and Replace dialog is open.]

2. Three steps to get to the full Find/Replace dialog

I need the Find/Replace dialog. The full one that lets me set such search parameters as looking for highlighted text, or something in a certain paragraph style, or just so I can specify searching up from the current point instead of down.

How do I get there? Say I start with Command-F to activate the search field and type bookmarks bar and then realize I want to limit the search to Heading 1 styles. Next I choose Replace from the search field menu, which opens the sidebar (or press Command-Shift-H to open it). THEN I have to choose Advanced Find & Replace from the Action menu.

So, that’s three steps just to open the damn dialog, never mind that you still have to open another dialog if you want to specify character formats, or character or paragraph styles, as search criteria.

[Okay, I’m making another entry just to describe how to reassign the Command-Shift-H back to opening the “Advanced” dialog, the way it used to.]

Word search field

Top, the search field in the toolbar. Bottom, the sidebar Find and Replace

3. No tabbing from one field to another in the sidebar search

At the top of the sidebar is a Find and Replace area, which presents several problems. The first you’ll run across is this: You can’t tab between the Find and the Replace fields. Open this area with either the Replace command from the search field menu (see picture) or the Edit > Find > Replace command (Command-Shift-H) and the Find field is filled in to match the toolbar’s search field, and the Replace field is active. Want to alter the Find field? You’ll have to click in it to activate it. Did you hit Tab to try to move to the Find field? Sorry, now the Replace field is inactive, too, and you’ll have to click in that to enter or edit anything. This is ridiculous.

But it gets worse: hit Tab (because that’s the natural thing to do) and nothing happens. Keep hitting it; nothing happens. Nothing blinks, beeps, or otherwise lets you know that at least Word heard you, even if it won’t do anything for you. It feels as if the program has frozen, though it hasn’t – but you must click somewhere in the window (or the sidebar or the search field) to get Word’s attention.

4. The Replace field is always active when you open the sidebar

Type search text in the search field in the toolbar, open the search sidebar, and the Replace field is active, on the seemingly reasonable assumption that since you’ve already put something in the search field, you probably now need to put something in the Replace field.

But if you open the sidebar because you know you want to toggle the Whole Word Only or Ignore Case option from its Action menu, you’re likely to hit Command-Shift-H to open the sidebar before you type anything at all. But the Replace field is still active by default—even though you may not want to Replace anything, but only want to find stuff to review. And, as noted above, you can’t tab to the other field. So, you’re stuck clicking in the search field to activate it.

Would it be so hard to detect an empty search field when the Find/Replace sidebar is opened, and activate the search field instead??

5. Multiple windows and the dead search field

Open Find and Replace in the sidebar. Hit Tab because Replace is active, and you want to put something in Find. As noted above, everything seems to go dead. Switch to another window with the systemwide Command-~ shortcut – because that’s a simple test to see if a program is still working if you have more than one window open. Yep, it’s still working, so Command-~ again to go back to the first window.

And now the search field in the toolbar is entirely dead. The usually white typing area is almost as gray as the toolbar itself and the document doesn’t respond to any keyboard input. Hey, how about Esc? Nope, not even that. Only a click someplace in the window raises it from the dead.

6. Multiple windows, the dead search field and window swapping

Okay, so you happened to follow the “procedure” I just described, and you’re back at the window where you started, and it has a dead, gray search field. Esc didn’t work to fix the field, but it’s so obvious that there’s a problem with the field, you figure hitting Command-F again might activate it, as it does initially.

Of course! That makes perfect sense. Or it would in another program. But this is Microsoft Word, so if you press Command-F at this point it brings the other window forward and activates its search field!

7. Inconsistent basic terminology

And, while we’re at it: how about some consistent terminology? As I typed up these issues, sometimes I found myself referring to the search field, sometimes the Find field, for the same thing (or the same three things: in the toolbar, in the sidebar, and in the Find and Replace dialog.)

That’s because the gray text that identifies the otherwise empty search field in the toolbar is Search in Document. So, it’s a search field. Open the sidebar, and the empty field’s gray text is Search Document. Okay, that’s relatively the same thing. But the sidebar area is labeled Find and Replace, not Search and Replace. Open the full dialog, where the search field has a label rather than gray text inside it, and the label is Find what. The tab-button that let’s you do a simple find as opposed to a Find/Replace is Find. The Edit menu command is are Find.

[To be fair – although I don’t find myself much in the mood for it as I catalog these issues – this is an endemic problem, and you’ll find this inconsistency of terms in many programs.]

8. Ignore Case vs. Match Case

The default approach to searches is case insensitive: type in “jersey” and you’ll get hits for the fabric and also for the state. When you want one or the other, you type your search term using the correct capitalization and specify that the search should match it. In the traditional Find and Replace dialog, this was always accomplished by checking the Match Case button.

In order to provide this oft-used option without your having to drill down to the third level of the Find function (see #2), Word 2011 puts a scant handful of options in the action menu in the Find and Replace sidebar (“Sounds Like”?? Really? Is that the one they think people use so often it gets pride of place when there are only four slots available??). Now, where was I… oh, yes… so, is the traditional dialog’s Match Case option in the more-easily-accessed sidebar? No. Yes. Sort of maybe.

There’s an Ignore Case option. Does it give you the same “power”? Yes. But how? BY GIVING YOU THE OPPOSITE CHOICE. Want to search for “jersey” and not get instances of New Jersey? UNCHECK the Ignore Case option in the sidebar. Or CHECK the Match Case option in the dialog. Consistent much?

This is so typical of Microsoft: give the user all sorts of capabilities, but don’t worry about how or where. It doesn’t matter if you have to drill through multiple dialogs or awkward menus, or if a command description makes little sense, or if it’s esthetically lacking. Just make sure it’s in the feature list. I keep expecting more from the Mac unit of Microsoft, that the sensibilities of the Mac’s interface will overcome the tunnel vision of the people doing the designing and coding. Maybe they’re not allowed to actually use Macs, so they just don’t get it.

(Hey, look at the bottom of the Find/Replace dialog: have you ever seen pop-up menus whose names are so close to their left edges? These practically poke me in the eye. It’s not as if there’s not enough room in the dialog, or in the menus as they’re currently designed. Did you know that Apple publishes interface guidelines that specifies the exact number of pixels that should be used for the placement and spacing of items in dialogs? No? Maybe Microsoft doesn’t know, either.)

Word's off-kilter menu titles

I mean, really - they can't nudge these words to the right a bit??

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