Friday, September 30, 2011

When what you see is not what you get

It's interesting how technology issues that you discovered long ago crop up again in the present, though in a somewhat altered form.  In this case the issue is creating an MS Office document with highly stylized content and then viewing it in a different version of Office, perhaps also on a different platform.

Back in 1995 when I started to use FirstClass for teaching intermediate microeconomics, I posted lecture notes as a way to lure the students into the online conferencing system.  I knew the students wanted the lecture notes, because they had asked me for those in the past. So I accommodated that desire with the hope they'd discuss the economics online, once they got there.  At the time I was a Mac guy.  My lecture notes were in Word.  They had graphs made with a drawing program (MacDraw???) and then pasted into Word.  A majority of the students were using a PC.  So I converted my version of Word to a PC version, with a built in utility for that.  And I also converted to a WordPerfect version, because that was still popular at the time. The text largely came through.  But some of the graphs did not.  I recall in particular a u-shaped average cost curve, where a portion of the graph got rotated 90 degrees upon conversion.  It was amusing enough that I can remember it all these years later.

I'm have the same sort of issues now with Excel.  Since I spent a fair amount of effort in taking out the macros and activex controls, finding suitable alternatives by other means, it occurred to me to test on a Mac to see if the rest of it worked okay.  Mike Williams from  the College of Ed was kind enough to help me with that.  Alas, the results were a bit discouraging.

There were a few I discovered.   I make extensive use of the combo box tool, which is supposed to work cross platform.  Regarding functionality, that is true.  However, regarding the size of the combo box, that is not true.  The screen shots below illustrate.  On the Mac, some of the combo boxes got too narrow to be useful.  

Mac - Part of Login Worksheet
Combo boxes are too narrow to be useful

PC - Part of Login Worksheet
Original combo boxes that are fully functional

Also, if you are not colorblind, it should be obvious from the screen shots that the Mac changes the background color, from a pale blue on the PC to a green on the Mac.   This is not just a cosmetic issue for me (though it is cosmetic in this particular instance).  Because I'm hiding content in cells by having the font color the same as the background color, to be made visible at a later point via conditional formatting which alters the font color in a way to contrast with the background, it is crucial that if there is to be color substitution that the background color and font color substitute in the same way.  Alas, we had an instance where that wasn't true.   A different issue cropped up as well, a comment that appears with mouse over that works perfectly fine on the PC gets chopped off on the Mac.

I found this all a little unnerving at the time of discovery.  Based on the experience, it occurred to me that I should also check how things compare with Excel 2007 on a PC.  I've been creating my stuff with Excel 2010.  So here platform isn't involved, just the version of Excel.  Different issues emerged, around the spin button, which I also rely on a great deal.  That too seems to re-size at times and in some cases to simply not appear as the following screen shots illustrate.

Excel 2007 - Very narrow spin buttons
No spin button after Evaluate???

Excel 2010 - Spin Buttons as created

I should add here that I originally made the workbook in 2004, so it was in xls format.  I updated it a few years ago, keeping it in xls format.  When I taught with it last spring, I converted it to xlsm format.  It worked fine for me, but some students reported issues with it that way.  This is why I took out the macros and activex controls.  Also, I was all over the place in these earlier versions, regarding column width and where the combo boxes and spin buttons appeared relative to a cell that contained it (spin button) or a set of cells that spanned it (combo box).  And some of my conditional formatting dates back to the earlier versions, though much of it now uses the Excel 2010 conditional formatting.  I am not sure which of the factors, or which combination of factors caused these irregularities.  But I've experimented some with finding remedies and this is what I've concluded so far.

For the Mac issues - The sizing issues can all be addressed by simply making things bigger than are necessary on the PC.  The combo boxes should be wider than necessary.  The comments should have more space than is required by the comment text.  Also, students using a Mac should be told to view the file at something like 150% zoom.   The color substitution will happen, but if conditional formatting is done exclusively using the Excel 2010 tool, then the substitution should be the same for font and background, with no real problem created.  Some of the color substitution can result in "loud" colors on the Mac.  The color on the PC that generated that should then be avoided.  I'm no longer going to use the very pale blue as background.

For the Excel 2007 Issues - Moving forward I will keep columns a uniform width and when placing a spin button within a cell make sure there is no other content in that cell.   I will also make my spin buttons a little wider than I otherwise wood, so even if they are narrower in Excel 2007, they are still of usable width.

There will be some effort entailed in getting the content into shape, but for now I think that effort is worthwhile and if I am to make more content in the future, this effort will help inform how to do that better.

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