Microsoft Concedes That The Ribbon Isn't Intuitive

office2010fileWhen Microsoft introduced the Ribbon interface in Office 2007, a key argument for the radical switch was that it would be easier to use. That always seemed like a suspicious claim relative to the millions of existing Office users, and now Microsoft has been forced to concede that throwing out everything might not have been the best move.

In a minor but telling change to the existing Office Ribbon implementation in the next beta of Office 2010, the 'Office button' has been replaced with a ribbon tab labelled 'File'. Given that the main use of the button is to access Save, Open and Print, which remain under a File menu in virtually every other Windows program, this is a move that's surprising only because it took so long.

In the technical preview, the button had already been moved down to be parallel with other Ribbon features, the second failed attempt to make people notice it (the first was making it flash when people first installed the Office 2007). Nonetheless, it turns out that sometimes text is actually better than an icon, as Microsoft admits on its engineering blog (Google take note):

Over and over in the usability lab, customers told us the word "File" was something they were looking for in the UI – all the years of using the File menu to use commands like “Save As” and “Print” is a hard habit to break. So we’ve listened to our customers and in our Beta release you’ll see we’ve added the “File” label to the tab. This has been a tremendous success in the usability labs and we’ve seen an incredible surge in initial discoverability of the Backstage view.

Well, duh. The Backstage view, if you were wondering, is the new all-in-one area for handling file management and printing features. In the technical preview, this looks so different from the rest of the product to be rather jarring; it appears better integrated in the next release if the screenshots are any guide.

While I'll readily admit that there are some features the Ribbon makes easier to implement, it still seems to me that selling more software by making a really visible change was a bigger reason for introducing it than anything else. But if Microsoft will just stop making keyboard shortcuts more convoluted with each release (it does seem to have fixed the rubbish recent files list it attempted in the technical preview), I might even be convinced it does have the best interests of users at heart once again. In the meantime, learn how to make the most of the ribbon.

Evolving the Backstage view [Microsoft Office 2010 Engineering]


    Personally, I had no problem adapting to the Office button or the ribbon, it all seemed intuitive enough, possibly even easier to navigate than the original toolbar and menu combo, when looked at with a fresh set of eyes. Everything is categorised where you would expect to find it with large labels and informative tool tips.

    Surely users could easily adapt to the “Office button” without too much trouble, you only have to click it once to figure out what it does. It's even in the same place you would expect to find “File”. No one caused a fuss when Microsoft took the “start” off the start menu in Vista.

    That said, Office 2007 probably caused far more pain and frustration for users who chose not up upgrade, and soon started receiving useless .docx and .pptx in their email.

      I don't think "everything is categorised where you'd expect to find it" with tables in particular. Table commands were all on one menu pre-Ribbon, but are now spread over three or four tabs.

      Discoverability? Since when do you alienate hundreds of millions of existing customers by forcing them to "discover" where the functionality is hidden? Excel and Word only becamse successful in the first place because they offered legacy support for the keyboard menus their competitors' software: Lotus 123 and Wordperfect. Nobody complained about the missing start button in Vista because nobody liked it in XP. The entire point of Windows as an operating system was its GUI interface. Period. When Microsoft maked the GUI interface HARDER to use, they lose sales. That point was rammed home by the "Epic Fail" of Microsoft Office 2007. Corporations not only refused to buy into it, they also refused Vista. There is an entire world of XP support by vendors and continued sales of Office 2003. Money talks.

      I have Office 2000, 2003, and 2007 on all my computers. I also have OpenOffice. I only use 2007 to help other people figure out how to use it, for money. I personally NEVER use 2007 myself. If Microsoft doesn't get it right in Windows and Office 7 or 10 or wherever they are now, I'm going to Linux.

    I am no fan of the ribbon. I now have to search for items and functions that I have been able to find easily for about 15 years. In fact, I downloaded an add-in that reinstates the 2003 menu structure. It's not that I don't like change - I just want change to make things BETTER ;)

    I'm not a Microsoft fan by any standard, I don't touch their products unless I have to, but in my opinion the ribbon was a great step forward. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but it was a lot easier than the previous UI. Good to see they are working on ironing out the annoyances

    "When Microsoft introduced the Ribbon interface in Office 2007, a key argument for the radical switch was that it would be easier to use."

    Actually, I don't believe this to be the case. My understanding is that the Office UI team were looking for a way to deliver a more consistent interface that would not degrade over time and improve the discover-ability of features.

    Here's the final part of a eight-part series examining the Office 2007 UI team's reasoning behind the new UI. This article links to all of the previous articles - parts 2 and 3 are particularly relevant.

    "In a minor but telling change to the existing Office Ribbon implementation in the next beta of Office 2010, the ‘Office button’ has been replaced with a ribbon tab labelled ‘File’."

    This change which are your article focuses on deals with changes to the Office button instead of the Ribbon UI. It's not quite the "Microsoft Concedes That The Ribbon Isn’t Intuitive" sensationalist headline in your article.

    "it still seems to me that selling more software by making a really visible change was a bigger reason for introducing it than anything else."

    Read the eight-part series above for the reasons behind the new UI in Office 2007. Frankly, it would have been a lot less work if Microsoft didn't rework the UI and they could have just made cosmetic changes to the toolbars as they did in Office 2003 and earlier versions.

    "But if Microsoft will just stop making keyboard shortcuts more convoluted with each release"

    Keyboard shortcuts were reworked to be consistent with the new Ribbon interface, while still keeping existing keyboard shortcuts for Office 2003 and earlier versions for users who had already learnt those keyboard shortcuts.

      Discoverability was certainly a design goal, but consistency wasn't: when I've queried them about it in the past, Microsoft has said consistency is less relevant than what it wants to do with each product. Many of the Office keyboard shortcuts did disappear in 2007, and some (such as recent files) were considerably more complex in the technical preview. More to the point, most require more keystrokes than their pre-ribbon equivalents (especially on Ribbon elements that require two letter keys merely to access the ribbon itself).

    Just curious about the "Google take note" comment in regards to prefering text over icons - doesn't Google use text for everything?

      Online mostly yes -- but the wrench icon in Chrome for settings makes me suspect Chrome OS may go the "visual" route.

    So when any of the layout of Lifehacker is changed shall we see a headline saying "Lifehacker Concedes That The website Isn't Intuitive"?

    A -slight- overstatement don't you think.

    I am a big fan of ribbon and I think for new users to Office (or any office suite) it probably makes more sense than the old menu system.

    I myself switched from Open Office to MS Office partly because of the ribbon.

    it's interesting to note that while Microsoft didn't end up using the ribbon in their professional products, such as Project -- perhaps because of the negative user feedback. I like the ribbon in Office, but I find many advanced commands difficult to find, after years of habit, one exception is the options dialogue which hidden under the office button is nigh-impossible to find -- it seems Office 2010 could be a step in the right direction.

    there are other implementations, but Autodesk jumped on the ribbon wagon with AutoCAD and now their Revit series products, both of which have knocked most long-time users out of their trees (a recent update to the AutoCAD ribbon solved many of the ribbon's issues but there is still a great deal left to fix); one would hope other software vendors spend far more time with user groups to determine a functional UI before releasing it publicly.

    Adobe has thankfully sidestepped the bulk of the ribbon style interface in their products, although CS4 did show some shades. this is a great example of how to emphasise the design of an interface on user-productivity and function, rather than ease-of-learning for new users, which is clearly the driver behind Microsoft's and Autodesk's GUI teams.

    I've always thought the ribbon was the greatest innovations I've seen come out of Redmond in a long time. It is guys, just see it, it's all they've got to show for the last 10 years.

    It's pretty disingenuous and dishonest to make a headline saying "The Ribbon Isn't Intuitive" when it's really a menu that's not even a part of the ribbon in Office 2007 that's the unintuitive part.

    The ribbon itself is incredibly intuitive. The big glowy button next to the ribbon? Not so much.

    Dear Angus Kidman,

    The article title "Microsoft Concedes That The Ribbon Isn’t Intuitive" is quite deceptive within the context of this article. The 'Office' button is the subject of the criticism NOT the ribbon, and in fact as you state, the button has been replaced by a ribbon tab which would logically go against the stated conclusion in your title. I am no defender of Microsoft, but I do believe honesty in news reporting should be upheld. I hope in the future you forgo fanaticism for clarity. (Just look at the comments for this article... they don't touch on the information you reported).

    I can't say I'm a fan of the ribbon however parts of it are growing on me. My biggest complaint is why can't I create a custom Ribbon easily of my favorite functions. You can do it but it's bloody hard.

    "There are some features the Ribbon makes easier to implement"

    Such as what? Having to memorize every single friggin' icon instead of just reading a text? Oh, there's text on each icon, if you don't mind losing a half-second waiting for it to pop up -- those half-seconds add up to a lot of wasted time during a day. Being unable to move an icon in any way except laboriously cicking it up and down an endless list? Having to turn off a whole tab so it takes up less space? The thing was designed for morons by morons. Now they've ruined SnagIt as well.

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