Many products evolve due to exposure to their competitors – adopting and refining the best features, and sometimes that evolution even starts to overtake the original. Many traditional desktop applications moved to online variants or were supplanted by newer concepts, such as shifting to mobile apps. Experiences that were clunky – like banking – moved to sometimes lower-functionality but more convenient apps, just as consumers adopted mobile payments and contactless cards.
Having blazed a trail with email in Hotmail and later Outlook Web Access, in 2010 Microsoft launched the first version of the Office web applications, meaning you could run lightweight Word, Excel and PowerPoint in your browser, as a companion or even as an alternative to the full-fat desktop versions.
A few years earlier, Google Docs released as an online word processor (and later, other types of productivity apps, rebranding as G Suite and now Google Workspace). There are pros and cons of the browser-only experience; you tend to sacrifice some functionality compared to the desktop applications in favour of ubiquitous availability, though web clients can be updated more easily and sometimes new features appear there first – as ToW #605 covered, with snoozing email.
Check out What’s new in Excel for the web or look for the summary covering Visio, Forms, Words and more, here.
If you like being browser based rather than desktop bound, you could start a new document from the address bar by simply entering word.new, excel.new or powerpoint.new. Others include docx.new, ppt.new, teams.new, sway.new …
You could add such links to your browser favourites; therefore, a new doc is but a single click away. There are many more .new shortcuts – Google’s in-house domain registry launched the service a few years ago, so not unsurprisingly, Mountain View hoovered up a lot of the relevant ones if you’re of a Googly persuasion. See docs.new, sheets.new or slides.new, mail.new …
Following last week’s missive on Notepad, including the obscure tip on how to create a log file, the topic of inserting and handling dates in other applications is worth a (re-)visit. Each individual app may choose to offer different methods and formats, but for common Office applications there are a handful of memorable tricks and shortcuts.
In Word, there are plenty of ways to insert and manage dates – perhaps the most useful way to remind the reader when the document was last updated (manually showing when a document was last reviewed or published). On the Insert tab, you’ll find Date & Time on the right-hand side, letting you add appropriate info in the format of your choice. You can also tick a box to update the field automatically, though that simply means every time the document is opened, it will show today’s date… which feels a bit pointless.
More useful could be to tell the reader when the document was created or last saved, by referencing the actual properties of the document (though be careful; auto-save might mean someone opened an old document, realised it was irrelevant, but had inadvertently saved it back).
On the Insert tab / Quick Parts, look under Field, then pick the doc property and format you’d like to show.
It is worth pointing out that showing a date as 10/1/21 (or similar) is ambiguous given that a few hundred million people will expect it be month-day-year while many of the remaining 7 billion will assume the day comes first, with a couple of billion presuming the format should normally start with the year, such as yyyy-mm-dd (which is arguably the most sensible of all; and it sorts properly, too).
A more daily usable short format like dd-mmm-yy (ie 13-Aug-21) should perhaps be the norm, especially when the date is appearing as text in a document. Pressing SHIFT+ALT+D in Word will insert the current Date as a field (so you can edit the format to remove ambiguity) and SHIFT+ALT+T inserts the current time too. In PowerPoint, both of these combos bring up the “Date & Time” dialogue to add the chosen content and format as plain text.
When formatting dates, incidentally, the convention is that two letters refer to the short number (eg dd = 13), whereas 3 d’s or m’s will use the short form of spelling the day or month, with 4 meaning the whole thing (ie Friday, August). Try formatting a cell in Excel as Custom, and you can preview what the format would be, by typing in a variety of letters.
While in Excel, it’s worth learning the short cut key to insert the date and time – CTRL+; and SHIFT+CTRL+; respectively (no doubt there’s a reason why Excel has a different shortcut to other Office apps – some legacy of Lotus 1-2-3 perhaps?).
OneNote fans will want to remember that SHIFT+ALT+D / T combo as it inserts the date/time into the notebook; really handy when taking notes of a phone call or similar. SHIFT+ALT+F puts both day and time, something that Word doesn’t offer. In both Desktop OneNote and users of the Windows Store version, it’s just plain text that gets added, so you’re on your own when it comes to formatting.
OneNote pages will typically have a date & time showing under their title – on the Desktop version, it’s possible to change that so as to mark a page as having been recently updated. No such luck on the lame duck Store version.
At least when stalwarts insist on writing – or worse, saying – a short-form date as something like “ten one”, there’s more than half of each month where one number in the date could only mean “day” – starting with the thirteenth (as in, 8/13 can never by the 8th of a month, but 8/12 could be a few days before Christmas to Europeans, or the date when tweedy Americans start looking for grouse in the Yorkshire moors and Scottish Highlands).
The word “accessibility” has been used for decades as a catch-all for how people of differing abilities can interact with their surroundings, and often applies to technology which can help to overcome barriers. It’s very easy to go about your day with no thought to how others could be affected by things that you don’t even notice, whether as a result of actions you do or just objects you encounter. Design plays a big part in helping people who have disabilities or who may find certain things more difficult, and good design means that assistive technology does not get in the way of anyone who doesn’t need it.
These technologies often spawn wider usage in unforeseen ways, and in many cases are developed not for goals of making a fortune or having global influence, but to help a particular individual:
Microsoft has a long history in pushing accessibility technology – Windows 95 was the first operating system to ship with accessibility options built in, and has developed a variety of tools and platform services aimed at developers. Windows 10 has many built-in options, grouped mainly under the Settings | Ease of Access applet.
You can jump straight to many of the settings applets by running ms-settings:easeofaccess-keyboard or ms-settings:easeofaccess-speechrecognition and so on.
If you don’t need to use assistive technology yourself, it’s good practice to think about how your work might impact people who do – and there’s a tool built into Office applications which will give you tips to make sure your document or email is suitable for users with accessible needs, such as having the contents read out by the machine, or making sure there’s adequate contrast in text colours, for improved reading ease.
The Check Accessibility option on the Review tab in Office apps like Word and Outlook, should be run just as you’d check the spelling of a document when you think it’s finished. The tool will give you a series of recommendations with guidance as to why it may be better to change aspects of the document. Not every one will be viable – you may want to have images in a particular place on the page, for example, rather than just in-line with text – but many are quick to correct.
If you’ve inserted graphics or charts, for example, then it’s worth adding “Alt Text” to describe what it is, so screen-reading software can read your description of what it is. Right-click on your image to add the text, or have the PC generate a description for you – sometimes with amusing results…
Thanks to Jon Morris for providing feedback on ToW #554, about email signatures – Jon rightly points out that many of us have tiny logos (Twitter, LinkedIn etc) or other icons in our email .sig, but don’t have Alt Text on them.
One call to action would be update your own sig to add Alt Text, or to mark the images as decorative so screen reader software ignores them.
For more tips on how to write documents which are more accessible, see guidance from Microsoft or from the University of Washington. Some resources for developers or web page designers from the UK Gov, with plenty of links to other sources – Testing for accessibility – Service Manual – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
In Outlook, any time there’s a date field (like when you’re setting a reminder, or entering the start date/time for an appointment) you can choose or enter a regular date, or put in an expression – like “2 days” or “next Tuesday” – and Outlook will figure out the offset from today, and will set the appropriate date.
In some date fields (like an appointment start time), if you say “4 days” then press enter or TAB, it will evaluate the new date; if you return and put “4 days” again, it may add those extra days to the last date. Try a few other things like “next Christmas”, “3rd Sunday in November”, “2mo” , “7d” or some special days – there are some surprising ones there, like “Lincoln’s birthday”, and other events with static dates … though nothing that might change the actual date from year to year (like Easter, or Thanksgiving).
In Excel, press CTRL+; to insert the current date into any cell – add a SHIFT key to insert the time instead. Excel are many date-oriented functions, but you don’t always need to write functions – simple maths can work on date fields – calculating the number of days’ difference between two dates, for example, or adding a number of days to a start date.
In the desktop OneNote app, if you want to edit the date and time at the top of a page, click on the field and you’ll see a clock or calendar icon appear next to it – click on that is set to, click on that to change the value; handy if you’re updating some reference material and want to make it clear that it’s recent.
Another way might be to insert the current date or time into the text: to do so, press SHIFT-ALT-D, or SHIFT-ALT-T for the current time, or SHIFT-ALT-F for the current date and time. The last one is really handy if you’re taking notes about a phone call, and want to quickly note the time that your insurance company said that everything was all fine, or when you started the indefinite call to the airline. The same shortcuts apply to the desktop OneNote 2016 application and also the OneNote store app.
Word also supports SHIFT-ALT-D and SHIFT-ALT-T like OneNote, though inserts a date or time field rather than a simple bit of text, and is slightly different to the Date & Time command on the Insert tab, which gives a bit more control over the formatting at the point of insertion, rather than requiring the user to insert the field then go back in to edit the format.
Since Outlook uses Word as its text editor behind the scenes, the same shortcut keys will also insert date fields into the text of an Outlook email.