I recently came across this blog post from 2007 comparing the quality of documents typeset with Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org Writer, and LaTeX. Although the post is long, it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. As a longtime user of LaTeX, I wasn’t at all surprised to see it best the competition in terms of the quality of typesetting.
There are a number of things I like about LaTeX, not the least of which is that it’s nice to be able to use a lightweight text editor with a smaller CPU and memory footprint to edit my documents. But LaTeX isn’t for everyone. Most people are far too accustomed to using WYSIWYG word processors to even consider learning how to format documents by marking up raw text with seemingly arcane commands.
Of course, most people don’t really know how to use their current word processing application effectively either. The software industry has placed so much emphasis on designing software to be “user-friendly” and “intuitive” that we now have a large class of users who are content to ham-handedly grope around contextual menus looking for what they think they want. These people have been conditioned to believe that it’s a usability fault in the software if they can’t figure something out in thirty seconds without referring to the documentation.
During college I worked in an office where all word processing was still done on a DOS version of WordPerfect. It definitely placed more demands on the end-user than the office productivity software of today. You really couldn’t get around needing to understand what the function keys did. Despite (or because of?) the steeper learning curve, the people I worked with in that office were much more efficient and productive using WordPerfect than many of my current colleagues are with Microsoft Word 2007. Almost everything becomes much easier when you spend a little time and effort learning how to do it properly first.
Is it better to have “intuitive” software that allows us to accomplish tasks more slowly, but without ever needing to review documentation or feel the frustration that can accompany a learning process? Or would we benefit more by using tools that require more upfront investment in learning but offer to save us substantially more time and effort in the long run?