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LibreOffice: a case study in frustration and usability shortcomings

I don’t really use LibreOffice. I have it installed because it’s marginally better than the alternatives—namely, paying for Office 365, using OpenOffice (which is basically LibreOffice without any pesky developers actually working on it), or figuring out how Apple have broken Pages since I last used it. I use text/plain, Markdown, and if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, LaTeX. Or Google Docs because of social obligation.

Recently, I had some docx files I needed to tidy up, edit a bit and convert to PDF. Finally, a perfect use case for LibreOffice to shine.

I started to report these issues on LibreOffice’s bug tracker but life is too short for Bugzilla.

Keyboard shortcuts didn’t work

I opened up the first document and it was too big for my screen. I’m using a Mac, so let’s use the universal zoom out command: Cmd -

That didn’t work. It just put a - into the document. Unhelpful.

How about zoom in? Cmd =. Nope, that didn’t work either.

So that’s problem 1: Cmd - and Cmd = don’t work for zooming in/out even though that’s the keyboard shortcut in every other Mac app.

What is the keyboard shortcut for it?

Finding keyboard shortcuts

I clicked ‘Help’ on the menu bar. I typed in ‘keyboard shortcuts’ in the search box. Nada.

LibreOffice’s help menu doesn’t integrate with the Help menu search box in macOS. But it still has a search box. The point of the Help menu search box is that it searches both the menu options of the application and the topics listed in the documentation. In LibreOffice it does only the former (which I believe is built into the operating system) but not the latter. This is misleading: it’ll lead users to think there isn’t documentation there when there is.

So, problem 2: The Help menu has a search field that doesn’t work.

Okay, let’s look at the Help menu. Many Mac apps have an item on the Help menu called Keyboard Shortcuts. Nope.

Problem 3: If your app has keyboard shortcuts, you should have a menu item in the Help menu telling people what they are. Undiscoverable keyboard shortcuts need to be made discoverable.

The first entry in the help menu is called ‘LibreOffice Help’ and has the distinctly Windowsy shortcut F1. I open that up.

Problem 4: Don’t use Function key shortcuts on macOS like you would on Windows. macOS is not Windows.

It then brings up a window called LibreOffice Help and it is focussed in a search box so I can search the index. You know, the thing I couldn’t search using the in-menu search box.

So I search for “keyboard shortcuts”. Nope. There is “keyboard; general commands” which didn’t have a cross-reference for “keyboard shortcuts”. Okay, let’s take a look at that.

Problem 5: If you have a document containing keyboard shortcuts, you should be able to find it by typing ‘keyboard shortcuts’ into the search field.

Nothing in that document about zooming in or out. Okay, let’s search for something else. I focus back in the search field. I type Cmd+A to select all the text in the search field to delete it and… I get a Database Wizard window.

Do I want to create a new database? No. I want to select all in the window I was focussed in, so I could delete it and type something else, just like I would type Cmd+A in any other Mac app.

I’m pretty sure if I wanted to create a database, the route I would take wouldn’t be: open LibreOffice, open a word processing document, edit it a bit, want to zoom out, open up the help centre, type something, not find what I’m looking for, then try to change my search, then create a database. Makes perfect sense.

Problem 6: Why would I want to create a database when I’m looking at help files for the word processor?

The help centre is not going to help, evidently. Maybe there’s a menu option to zoom the document.

View menu, Zoom! Okay, no keyboard shortcuts listed in there. There’s keyboard shortcuts for a whole bunch of things which aren’t listed in the help document, but whatever.

I change the zoom level by going to the submenu. You can also change the zoom by using the slider in the bottom right hand corner of the window. This has zoom in and zoom out buttons (marked ‘-‘ and ‘+’). That function exists… but isn’t accessible using the menu or through a keyboard shortcut.

As an aside: the database thing

When I accidentally ended up in the ‘Database Wizard’ while trying to find keyboard shortcuts in the help section, I noticed it asked me what sort of database I wanted to create, with a drop-down menu.

The only option in the drop-down menu is ‘HSQLDB Embedded’. As someone who knows a bit about databases, I know what this is. But:

Problem 7: You are offering me a choice of databases but there’s only one. Why offer me a drop-down box—suggesting some choice—if there is no choice?

Problem 8: Why tell me what type of database it is? This gives me no meaningful information.

Back to my document

Alright, so zooming in and out of a document using system-wide keyboard shortcuts isn’t going to be possible. Oh well. Let’s work on the document.

First of all, there was a table I wanted to delete. I did what many years of Microsoft Word—and natural intuition—taught me. Go to the line after the table finished. Press delete a bunch of times until the table goes away. Nope.

How about create a selection that starts after the table finishes and go back before the table starts then press delete? Nope. That doesn’t work either.

The way you delete a table is you right click on the table and choose “Delete > Table”. Or you do the same from the drop-down menus.

Problem 9: Why not let me delete a table by backspacing over it, or range-selecting it and pressing delete?

I delete some stuff from the document. It has a table of contents that’s auto-generated. So I go to it and “update” it. It loses all the formatting from the table of contents. This is bad.

Problem 10: Updating a table of contents in a docx file lost the formatting of the table of contents.

Now, time to save my document. I save a copy as ODT. I want to export it as PDF too.

Problem 11: The Export as PDF window has ‘Create PDF form’ pre-selected even though my document doesn’t have any forms in it. Surely, it’d be sensible to work out whether the document has any forms in it then only offer me the option of whether to create a PDF form if there’s forms that actually need creation? Otherwise, you are asking me to make a wholly redundant decision (and, boy, are there a lot of decisions in the LibreOffice Export as PDF panel: it’s a six-panel tabbed interface with 75 different interface components including radio buttons, drop-downs, checkboxes, numeric selectors, buttons and a file selector). If it’s irrelevant, grey it out.

I’m not trying to be shitty to LibreOffice’s developers: I’m glad LibreOffice exists and want it to succeed, even though it’s not really for me. It still feels very unpolished and unloved. I get why some of the above issues exist: they are trying to make a system that works across platforms, they’ve got a whole bunch of different products to work on.

I have reported one of these issues on Bugzilla, and it was closed as a duplicate of an issue that has existed untouched since 2012. I wish the LibreOffice developers all the best, but it does seem like an unmanageably large monolithic blob of an application with an enormous amount of technical debt with a small, overstretched team.