Nearly three years on, what’s the verdict on the Office 2007 ribbon?

Mitch Barnett has had enough:

I can’t take it anymore. I am re-installing Office 2003 and forgetting about Office 2007. Why? It’s the ribbon man! For all of the usability design, I find it unusable. No offense to Jensen Harris or Microsoft, but for me, the consumer of the product, and after trying it for over a year, I just can’t get used to it.

It is a thoughtful post, mainly about Word, and worth a read if you are interested either in Office or in usability design. His main point is that there are too many features:

Honestly, Word should have been “refactored” into perhaps multiple products or features split into a desktop publishing application or a whole other suite of applications. But instead, the UX team went through an honorable and noble design process of solving the wrong problem.

Trouble is, users are conservative. Lotus tried to re-invent the spreadsheet with Improv, but despite good reviews it failed to compete with 1-2-3, let alone Excel. Another noble failure which comes to mind is OpenDoc:

OpenDoc is a revolutionary cross-platform technology that replaces conventional applications with user-assembled groups of software components. With OpenDoc, users can create virtually any kind of custom software solution.

Wikipedia also describes OpenDoc and why it failed. Evolution, or doing the same thing as before but slightly better, is easier to sell than revolution.

That brings me back to the ribbon. I recorded my first impressions just after the public announcement of the ribbon at PDC 2005:

It’s a bold move for Microsoft. Most people here seem to like the new look, but will the average office worker appreciate or resent these major changes? There is no "classic mode"; you have to use the new interface. If it catches on, it will make near-clones like Open Office look dated; if it’s just too different, it could boost the competition.

My reflection nearly three years later is that – despite Barnett’s comments – the ribbon has proved both less controversial and less revolutionary than I had expected. I’ve had the experience of introducing users to Office 2007, and generally they take a day or two to work out where their favourite features are hidden, and then carry on much as before. Only a minority seem to dislike it as much as Barnett, and Office 2007 seems to have been a success for Microsoft. The ribbon is good marketing, because users can easily tell the difference between this and earlier Office releases.

On the other hand, Microsoft has not convinced the world that the ribbon concept is the future of UI design; and I’ve not detected any great pressure on the developers of Open Office or other popular applications to change to the ribbon style. Here I am typing into Live Writer, which has conventional menus, and it is perfectly comfortable; I’d rather the Writer team worked on features other than a ribbon UI. Sorry, I mean other than an Office Fluent User Interface.

Personally I get on OK with the Office 2007 ribbon, thanks to the Quick Access Toolbar. I also like the way the ribbon is somewhat protected from customisation, so that it is the same from one profile to another. That said, I agree with Barnett that there is too much UI on display, though I am not sure of the solution, and some of the UI decisions seem strange.

I still believe that while the effort to improve usability was genuine, Microsoft was also determined to make Office 2007 distinctive from its rivals in some way that could be patented. The key question: did that constraint weaken the outcome?

Note that Microsoft has hinted at plans for the ribbon that go beyond Office. It may be a core part of the UI in Windows 7.

Hey, I know plenty of developers read this blog. Are you being pressed to implement a ribbon UI for your applications? Or is this top-down initiative passing you by?

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1 comment to Nearly three years on, what’s the verdict on the Office 2007 ribbon?

  • FWIW, users have asked for the ribbon in Windows Live Writer since the earliest betas. Not a lot, but some. It would actually solve a lot of UI problems for us, but of course, we too would rather work on features at the moment :)