One thing we all miss about having physical team meetings, is the delight of trying to read an enthusiastic participant’s attempt at getting their thought process across by scribbling on a whiteboard. Often with pens that have too little ink left to be legible. Charts with arrows always point up and left and bullet-point, capitalized text that may just be readable, but can anyone remember what it meant by the end of the meeting? At least you can take a picture to decipher later.
Fortunately, there are digital equivalences – you could be in a Teams meeting and co-authoring a document, where multiple people are editing at the same time and marking up comments. You could be watching someone share their 4K screen so they can walk through only a few dozen PowerPoint slides, or you might even have had a play with the shared Whiteboard app that’s been around and been part of Teams for a while now.
The whole UI has been given an overhaul in line with the latest colourful design ethos, and there are lots of neat new features like the automatic shape recognition for mouse-driven drawing. Hold the Shift key down while you’re drawing with a mouse pointer or a Surface pen, and it’ll straighten lines for you.
It’s available in a variety of guises; there’s a web UI (app.whiteboard.microsoft.com) and it shows up in the menu on the top left of Office 365 web applications, such as subscribers would find by going to office.com and signing in with your ID. It’s on iOS and Android, though updates may flow through at different rates to other platforms.
Of course, it’s as a Microsoft Store app too; if you’re already a Windows 11 user, you may want to check out the new Store and look for the Library icon on the lower left, showing you what you’ve installed previously and also which apps have been most recently updated (and am Update button to kick off that process). Sadly, looking at an app’s page in the Store (still) doesn’t tell you what the current version is or when it was last updated.
You can pin whiteboards to Teams channels or chats too; just add a Tab, select Whiteboard from the app list, and the content will persist within that context rather than a point-in-time meeting.
There was a time when visiting a website gave you a 1/10 chance of being offered a user survey, asking why you’re visiting today and how you feel about the company. Presumably, response rates were low enough that such surveys are largely replaced with annoying cookies and tracker software so the company can see what you’re doing without needing to ask you why.
Surveys in email can be a lot more useful, though, when trying to garner feedback about a particular topic. Outlook has had Voting Buttons since it first appeared in Office 97. They provide a simple way of asking a single question and getting recipients of the email to respond so that the sender can see what the votes cast are. You can take the defaults or add your own custom options, separated by semicolons.
Recipients get prompted in Outlook and can vote with a single click, rather than having to type a response, and the sender can see a Tracking tab on the message in their Sent Items folder to get the results.
One downside of voting buttons, though, is that they only work in Outlook – there’s no Web App or mobile support, so it does restrict the usability somewhat. Great news, though – a more modern approach is available; not only does it work using the Outlook mobile apps and the browser but it’s a bit more in-your-face for most Outlook users too, with a simple and quick way of responding.
The Poll feature in Outlook appeared in March 2020 but may have been easy to miss, given all the other stuff that was happening then. It’s accessible from the Insert menu on a new message, or if you look at the bottom of the Use Voting Buttons drop-down menu, it’s been added there too.
Clicking on the icon gives you a single question with two or more options; it’s powered by Microsoft Forms, but there’s no fancy branching or data validation – it’s a straight “choose one of these short text responses” feature and all the better for it.
If using Outlook (desktop or mobile) or OWA, when a recipient in your organization receives an email with a Poll included, it’s shown right at the top and is super simple to reply to. If the recipient is using a mail client that doesn’t understand the Poll, there’s also a link to the web-based version too.
Since it’s delivered as part of a Microsoft 365 / Office 365 subscription, it’s a little less slick when dealing with users outside of the organization / tenant (the inline previews don’t show up, so outsiders will need to click the link and use the web UI, and will need to type their email address into the response too), so think of it as a friendly and visible way of collecting simple internal votes.
Pivot Tables are a somewhat esoteric spreadsheet feature which everyday Excel users probably shy away from, but for the enlightened can help to turn potentially large tables of raw data into summarised views that can be easily rearranged.
Excel makes it easy to take a static table with rows of data arranged into columns that correspond to measures or fields – like sales of a product, or assignments of a relationship such as an export from a CRM system – and then represent the inherent hierarchy in a super-powerful fashion.
If you haven’t really used Pivot Tables, the simplest way to get your head around what they can do is to try messing around with some real data, or use some relatively simple sample data to unearth the power within. Free sample data at Contextures is a good place to start – in fact, here’s one sample that has been turned into a Pivot table to get started with (just download it somewhere, open the Zip file and then open the example XLSX file within).
The sample data is sales of foods over a period of time; look at the FoodSales tab to see the raw data. The pivot table quickly lets you summarise by region, or category, or whatever fields are defined.
By showing the PivotTable field list (right-click on the table and you’ll see either show or hide field list at the bottom of the menu), you can easily drag things around to change the grouping order.
It’s easier to just try it out than to try and explain, though there are plenty of tutorials around – from overviews to walkthrough videos or all kinds of more advanced stuff. And if you end up making a mess of the table, there’s also CTRL+Z to undo…
If you’re dealing with lots of fields that would go in the Rows section then you might find it easier to use the Classic layout by right-clicking on the table and choosing Pivot Table options, though you might want to remove the auto-totalling for most of the fields (right-click on a field and choose Subtotal…) otherwise the display gets a bit unwieldy.
When handling very large volumes of data, filtering using the drop-downs to the right side of field names is a great way of showing only the specifics you’re interested in, though sometimes it’s easy to forget there’s a filter in force and think that the data you’re working with is not showing the full picture. To reset all the filters back to the start, just go to the Data tab and Clear the filters from there.
If you want to filter on a specific value – eg. Let’s say you have a list of customer account names and you want to show only the customers associated to a single account manager (regardless of geography, industry etc), you could click the filter on the account manager field and find the person’s name within.
In our foodstuff example, we could have a different layout of fields and want to filter on City – but a quicker way to doing so is to just right-click on the name you want to focus on, and choose Filter > Keep Only Selected Items and it will quickly set the filter to just that name.
Emojis can trace their roots back to the first 🙂 from September 1982. Originally knows as emoticons or simply smileys, many of us have adopted these icons like a form of punctuation, especially in social media / Yammer / Teams type comments. This topic was last visited 4 years ago in ToW 391.
Emojis are mostly agreed and defined by the Unicode Consortium, which controls the Universal Coded Character Set, adopted by many systems to maintain compatibility between each other. When a user sends a symbol in a text message, the phone of its recipient needs to know which character was being sent or confusion may occur. Interpreting what the actual emoji symbol means is still down to the end user, and there are many pitfalls to avoid.
Once both sender and recipient of a message or comment agree which emoji to display, the application or platform they’re each using still has to decide what it will look like, and sometimes the iconography – and therefore the subtext – will have changed over time; see the Pistol Emoji (emojipedia.org) as just one example.
Microsoft decided to adopt a “flat” emoji look in the Windows 10 timeframe, but that is starting to change again with the upcoming release of Windows 11 and the evolution of Microsoft 365 – as Art Director and “Emojiologist” Claire Anderson previewed, we’re going 3D and Fluent, due late this year. Oh, one more thing…
ToW reader Paul Robinson draws attention to the shortcut way of inserting emojis in Windows – it’s been a feature for a while now – just press WindowsKey + . and it will allow you to insert emojis into pretty much anywhere that accepts text.
The UI for the emoji panel is changing in Windows 11 too, with GIFs and other types of symbol being included and the whole thing is easier to search. A useful tooltip shows you what the symbol represents, though as said before, be careful with the potential interpretation of some of them. Peachy.
In Windows 10, the same keystroke brings up a simpler yet slightly more confusing UI. Both old and new (under the Symbols grouping) provide a neat way of finding and inserting other special characters; arguably quicker than fishing about in the Office menu, and certainly better than faffing around with typing in ANSI codes.
Paul likes to start Teams channel names with an emoji, and if you want to illustrate one difference between old world and new, try using them in email subject lines and see just how they appear in Outlook versus Outlook Web App…
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).
Think of this week’s tip as not one single dish, but rather a series of related snacks; a groaning table of cold hors d’oeuvres or sizzling spicy tapas, with one common theme – they’re all about Excel.
May the F4 be with you
One of the neatest features in Office yet largely hidden; the F4 key repeats the last command without needing to faff about selecting the option from the menu. So what, you might say? Well, what if you’re formatting cells and want to repeat the same format over and over again – you could change one, then use the Format Painter option to apply that to select other cells, or possibly just apply the format you want, then select each additional cell in turn and press F4.
One slight downside is that it only repeats the very last action, so changing a number format and then making it bold wouldn’t be easily repeatable since those are two actions. Still, there are so many uses for this “Magic Key no one knows about”.
CTRL+y does the same thing in case you’ve got one of those annoying keyboards where the function keys do other things, you never know without looking if you’ll be pressing F4 or changing the system volume.
Layouts and Tabs
Now, Windows has lots of tricks for arranging application windows side by side, especially if you have multiple monitors; there’s a particularly shiny new way of doing it in Windows 11 with Snap Layouts. In the context of Excel, that’s OK if you’re using two spreadsheets side by side and you might want to reference or copy data between them, but Excel has its own window-handling functions that could be more useful.
The key scenario here is that you can open the same document in more than one window (by clicking New Window, on the View tab) and then show different parts of it side/side – separate tabs, perhaps, or different areas on the same sheet.
The Synchronous scrolling feature means you can also keep the cursor at the same point in both sheets, making it easier to compare. If you have functions on one tab that depends on data from another, you could change the data in one window and see its impact in real time in the other.
Click on the Arrange All menu option to automatically distribute the open Excel windows, optionally confining the process to just the windows from the active workbook.
Transpose data with paste
It’s a fairly common exercise to take a load of data that’s in one format and want to represent it differently; there is a useful Transpose feature that takes data from columns and paste it back as a row, or vice versa. One useful scenario could be when you want to take the names of everyone who got an email or meeting request and put them in a tabular format.
Start by copying and pasting the names/addresses from Outlook’s To: field into a new cell: you’ll see that is’ one long string of text that needs to be broken down, but in this case, each address is delimited with a semicolon (“;”).
Having selected the cell, go to the Data tab in Excel and choose Text to Columns then choose Delimited and select the semicolon. Once the wizard is complete, you’ll end up with each address in its own column. Now select the multiple cells and copy to clipboard.
Next, put the cursor on a lower row or maybe a new sheet altogether; right-click on the destination cell and under Paste Options, look for the Transpose icon (with the two arrows); hovering over the different icons in this menu will preview what you’re going to do. Click on the icon to commit.
Now you have a list of addresses on their own row, and without the “;”s, but they do have a leading space ahead of all but the first one. It might be quick to correct each line in turn, and there’s always the TRIM function which could be used to tidy stuff up through formulae.
When you’re happy, remove the original line that had the text in columns, leaving just the separate email addresses on their own rows.
Now, snacks just make you hungry, don’t they?
Even fans of OneNote – either the full-fat Windows x86 version or the versions targeted at other platforms, mobiles and the Microsoft Store, both of which have been covered extensively in ToW passim – will likely use only a fraction of its total functionality. Did you know, for example, that pressing SHIFT+CTRL+> or SHIFT+CTRL+< increases or decreases the font size of the selected text? Or holding CTRL while pressing DEL or BACKSPACE in a block of text deletes the word either side of the cursor, and not just a single character? (Actually, these are true of other Office apps as well, though not Excel, presumably because using Excel for text formatting is considered deviant and weird).
There are many useful features hidden in plain sight, like the tagging functionality which sits on the Home tab. In OneNote for Windows, if you have the ribbon expanded, you’ll see a series of icons to mark selected text with a Tag, and for the top 9 you can tag the text by pressing CTRL+n, where n is the number in the list.
The idea with tags is that you can quickly reference back to the specific text that you’ve highlighted and tagged, via a hyperlink. As well as the variety of in-the-box tags, it’s easy to add custom ones: click on the down arrow at the bottom of the list and choose Customize Tags… then you can supply your own description and choose the icon and colours.
Finding previously-tagged text uses the seriously powerful but sometimes obtuse search function in the sidebar; if you use OneNote to take notes from Outlook meetings, by default you might see hundreds of links that appear to be tagged.
Try using the Search filters at the bottom to restrict the results set, so you only show tags within a given notebook location or across all your notebooks, but for a specific time.
The “OneNote for Windows 10”, Mac and mobile versions of OneNote handle tags slightly differently; while more-or-less compatible the degree of functionality does vary between the clients. Generally speaking, you can find tags across them all, though you may be restricted in editing or creating them. The OneNote mobile app supports a “To Do” tag, for example. The web clients don’t offer custom tags at all, and don’t allow tag-specific search (other than just text indexing).
In the OneNote for Windows 10 store app, you can search for Tags but custom ones created in the desktop app don’t appear in the Tags list when editing a page. Only a handful of tags are initially offered in the store version, and if you add a custom one it’s still possible to press CTRL+n to use it, but you need to count where your tag is in the list as it doesn’t show you the shortcut.
Custom tags added in the store version don’t appear in the tags list of any other client though do sync across other devices, to some degree.
Given the slight rough edges between the versions if you routinely open the same notebook in mobile, web and store/desktop apps, then Tags may not prove so useful – but if you tend to stick to a single UI – especially if it’s the older desktop one – then it’s worth exploring how custom tags could help you organize your stuff.
Lots of terms in computing have their roots in an earlier time, where the association has long since disappeared. The mouse was so called because of its “tail” connecting it to the machine; when was the last time you used a wired mouse? Then there’s the apocryphal story of a young person, on first encountering a 3.5” floppy disk (er, not so floppy any more) thinking that someone had 3D printed the save icon.
As well as the QWERTY keyboard layout, a few things were carried over to the modern computer from the typewriter – the backspace and tab keys and the carriage return key. Purely mechanical typewriters had an end-of-line lever, which caused the paper to feed one line and the whole mechanism of the roller to shoot back to start a new line. Electric typewriters had the innovation of not requiring the dings and the manual whirrs, by pressing the RETURN key to automate the carriage – the symbol still displayed on most computer keyboards today is indicative of the physical action.
Early computer systems aped the same approach of the line feed (ie the paper being shuffled up one line) and the carriage return (going back to the left side), as being separate activities and they were given specific control codes – so CR, LF and CR+LF are still things. For some time, consternation still applied as Windows considered that CR + LF needed to be noted to really start a new line, whereas the Unix fraternity simply thought that LF was all you needed. It is possible to hack the registry so Notepad acts Unixsy should you need it to.
In most applications, if you want to start a new line, you’d just press Return or Enter (in effect, the same thing, though not always the case). Pedants would say that ENTER doesn’t mean you necessarily need a new line, you’re just committing some data you’ve typed, redolent of the old terminal where you might be submitting a form rather than typing in free text.
Applications perform sometimes completely different actions when you press a modifier key like CTRL or ALT, and ENTER. In Word, CTRL+ENTER starts a new page, ALT+ENTER repeats the last typing action. In Outlook, CTRL+ENTER sends the current email and ALT+ENTER – like the same keystroke normally does when looking at a file in Windows Explorer – shows the properties of the current message.
In Excel, CTRL+ENTER has some other meanings, notably it completes the entry of data into a cell, without moving the selection to the next cell along or to the line below (depending on config). SHIFT+CTRL+ENTER can be used to create a powerful but quite complex array formula. ALT+ENTER also has a useful trick for formatting text in-cell, alongside some tips to control cell text formatting.
Sometimes, however, the layout doesn’t quite sit right unless you resize the column, and that might not be ideal. If typing in new text into a cell, you can force a new-line within the box by pressing ALT+ENTER. For existing text in a cell, one solution to put a new line in is to double-click in the cell, which will insert a flashing text cursor and you edit text directly in the cell rather than the formula bar text box at the top of the sheet. Move the cursor using the arrow keys and/or by clicking the mouse elsewhere in the text; press ALT+ENTER to force a new line in the box.
Another way of editing text in an existing cell; select it and the text will be displayed in the formula bar, but only the first line, unless you have the formula bar expanded out, by clicking the down-arrow on the right.
Subscribers to Office 365 / Microsoft 365 obviously get a load of services like email, OneDrive storage, SharePoint and so on, as well as client apps like the full-blown Office suite. Over the years, the app experience has got quite a lot closer with the web clients sometimes advancing faster than the desktop or mobile apps, meaning that it’s increasingly viable to live your life entirely in the browser.
The Office home page – on www.office.com when you’re signed in using your M365 account, or maybe even installed as an app on your PC – shows a list of available apps if you click the grid icon in the top left. Initially you’ll see the most popular or your own most recently used apps, but try clicking on “All apps” for the full list of what else is offered.
What you’ll see depends on what kind of subscription you have and what previews you might have opted into, as well as what apps may have been published by your subscription’s administrators (eg internal HR website or IT support desk sites could be listed there).
To keep things interesting, you can also install most of these web apps as Progressive Web Apps on your PC – using Edge, go to the Settings “…” menu in the top right, and look for the Apps menu option. They will then appear in the Start menu, can be pinned to the Task Bar and run in their own discrete window, just like a “real” program would.
One app which could roll back the years for a lot of people is Visio. Microsoft bought the diagramming software company at the turn of the century, for what was the largest acquisition to date – check out the list of other deals and see if you can remember many of those other $100M+ names…
Microsoft Visio became a premium addition to the Microsoft Office suite, latterly being sold as an add-on like Project. The software has continued to evolve over the years and has its own band of fans who use it for mind mapping, flowcharting, network diagrams, room layouts and so much more. You can even build Power Automate workflows using Visio (see more here).
It was recently announced that Visio is coming to a good many Office 365 subscriptions next month, for no extra charge. The “lightweight” web app approach is not going to supplant the full application for more complex purposes, but it still offers a wide range of templates that can be used to start some fairly snazzy drawings, all done in the browser.
If you’d normally turn to PowerPoint to try to create graphical documents like flow diagrams or simple org charts, keep an eye out on the All Apps list to see when Visio makes an appearance, and give it a try.
The Pandemic may have exposed millions of new WFHers to the delights of video conferencing, but the Zoom in this week’s ToW has nothing to do with the eponymous meeting company, rather it deals with a very cool yet somewhat obscure feature in PowerPoint, called, er, Zoom.
Way back when, there were numerous product incubation groups in Microsoft, who tried out new features as addins or companion products; over time, most of them have disappeared or the prototype products they produced made their way into the mainstream (or just quietly went away). Innovation continues within the various engineering groups, of course, and some is curated in the Microsoft Garage.
One OfficeLabs project that showed promise was pptPlex – an addin to PowerPoint that made it easy to create and present “non-linear” presentations, offering a kind of “Seadragon” type experience of zooming into content. The actual pptPlex software is long-gone but if you want a reminder of what it was like, or even to recall how funky Office 2007 looked, check out this video tutorial.
But like other Labs innovations, the ideas were re-born in other ways, in this case in the PowerPoint Zoom feature. This lets you essentially embed a thumbnail of a slide into another one, optionally even replacing the mini-version of the slide graphic with a custom image; in the example shown below, rather than a miniscule chart of stock price, we’ve put the company logo instead, but clicking on it drives a nice zoom transition to a separate slide which has the real chart.
It’s probably easiest to see by example so check out the download here – to experience the Zoom effect, put the file into Slideshow mode.