Microsoft's Ribbon interface represents a radical change from standard menu-based applications, but if you're a regular user of Office 2007, you need to come to grips with it. Here's some handy strategies to make the transition easier.
Microsoft introduced the Ribbon in Office 2007 as a means of making it easier for people to access the functions found in the Office suite of applications (particularly in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and, to a lesser extent, Access and Outlook). Microsoft's own research suggested that there were too many functions in the Office suite for people to find effectively; the majority of requests for "new" features covered options that were already present. The Ribbon evolved as a means of making popular features more visible, and providing a clearer way of indicating the effect of selecting different options.
The Ribbon has also been added to a handful of system applications such as Paint and WordPad in Windows 7, but in truth that's not likely to affect many people since there are much better free alternatives available. Interestingly, it hasn't yet been added to the Mac version of Office, despite the latest release appearing after Office 2007.
I loathed the Ribbon when I first saw it in the Office 2007 betas, since it seemed to effectively say to experienced Office users "all that time you invested in learning our interface was wasted". I still think that creating a product that looked radically different to its predecessors to drive upgrade sales was a bigger part of the motivation than making Office easier to use. However, since there's no sign of the ribbon disappearing in Office 2010, dedicated Office users need to come to grips with it. If you haven't yet played with a Ribbon-equipped application, here's what you need to know.
The big differences to spot
The Ribbon replaces traditional menus with a series of labelled tabs across the top of the screen (such as Home and Insert), with related functions sorted into labelled groups (such as Clipboard or Styles) under each tab. Microsoft organises these on an application-by-application basis, so the tabs aren't identical and can contain different options depending which application you're running. Some functions are pretty obvious, but others aren't (my biggest gripe, for instance, is how table functions in Word, which used to reside on a single menu, are now spread across multiple tabs).
Hovering over an element of the Ribbon provides a brief indication of what it does, as well as the keyboard shortcut you can use (if one exists). Some of the elements replicate the toolbars found in earlier versions of Word, giving an element of familiarity.
Two of the more confusing elements of the Ribbon are the Office button (in the top left corner) and the small downward arrows which appear under each grouped area. The former effectively replaces the File menu, though this is far from obvious (indeed, Microsoft had to resort to making it flash on new installations to draw people's attention to it). The small arrows pop up dialog boxes offering additional options; it's not clear why the more obvious option of also letting people click on the label words wasn't used.
In theory, the most common features will appear on the Home tab, but this isn't much use if something you use all the time isn't there. You can customise the Quick Access Toolbar (which appears next to the Office button) to include functions you use frequently; this function is found under the small downward pointing arrow next to the toolbar itself.
Outlook users should note that the Ribbon only appears during email composition, effectively replicating key features from Word; it isn't part of the main interface. And there's no Help tab; where earlier Office releases allowed easy help searching from the top left corner, now you have to click on a minute question mark.
Use training resources to learn new locations
For users coming from earlier versions, the biggest questions are likely to be "where's that feature gone?" There's relatively little in common between the menus used in Office 2003 (and earlier releases) and where they are now in the Ribbon. Pointing at tab after tab to find what you need can become frustrating (especially if the tab isn't visible; for instance, the Developer tab is disabled by default throughout Office).
The easiest free resource to learn where what you need has gone is the Mapping Workbooks produced by Microsoft, which are spreadsheets listing features from Office 2003 and where to find them on the Ribbon (and which we've discussed in detail before). Not every feature from earlier versions is replicated in Office 2007; if you can't find it in the Mapping Workbooks, that likely means it isn't there at all.
If you really can't spare the time to learn new locations, previously mentioned UBitMenu restores the Office 2003 menu structure into Office 2007, giving you both options.
Embrace the keyboard shortcuts system
Experienced Windows users are used to pulling up menus using the Alt key and their initial letters (a function that the Mac doesn't offer at all, incidentally). You can't do that in Office 2007, but you can access most Ribbon functions via the keyboard.
Hit the Alt key and you'll see a letter appear under each tab name. Hit that letter and single or double letter combinations will appear for those functions. So to get to the Symbol option, you type Alt then N then U. (You can of course define your own keyboard shortcuts via macros, but this option will work on any install.)
The big disadvantage of this approach is that the shortcuts are rarely intuitive. Office 2007 tries to support older menu keyboard shortcuts (Alt-F opens the Office button), but that means that only "leftover" letters could be assigned to tabs. Hence the View tab is accessed with the letter W rather than V.
Learn how to get it out of the way
Once you've memorised the relevant keyboard shortcuts or set up your own, the Ribbon can look like a huge waste of screen real estate. You can hide it by clicking on the Customize Quick Access Toolbar button (the little down arrow near the main Office button) and select Minimize the Ribbon. If you really want maximum space, set Draft mode as the default view for Word.
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