A Personalized View of the Microsoft Office Ribbon Bar UI

September 30, 2008 at 11:07 am | Posted in Information Work, Office, usability, User experience | 2 Comments

The Wall St. Journal had a section on the Technology Innovation Awards yesterday (9/29/08)which included a trends section called “The Latest Buzz On …” on page R2.  In it, user interface guru Jakob Nielsen praises ribbons bars and, in particular, the ribbons in Microsoft Office 2007 (like those in PowerPoint 2007 below).  I’m going to disagree with Jakob here, and it isn’t the first time.  I’ve been diving into Office 2007 more extensively lately and am not a fan of the new UI.

 Powerpoint ribbon

As a UI, it seems to have sacrificed personalization for context.  By context I mean the drawing tools appear at the top when you click on a drawing object and otherwise they remain hidden so as not to distract you.  That’s nice.  But the toolbar used to adapt to who I am, not just what I’m doing.  If I was a user of the indent feature, it would show up on the toolbar and if I didn’t use it it would eventually disappear since there isn’t room for every icon.  If I wanted to have the review toolbar float near the text and keep other options at the top of the screen to fit my personal work style I could.  In fact, I could move any toolbar to float or dock in any side of the screen.  Now I can only appear at the top and you can only customize the quickbar which is permanently docked.

Besides that, there are still many items that seem to be randomly placed.  There is only so much screen real estate on the ribbon to lay out commands and have them attractively grouped, so certain commands couldn’t fit in their optimal spot.  Does “research” belong under Review?  Doesn’t turning on “snap to grid” in PowerPoint belong under some menu option – any menu – rather than having to right click in the workspace?

There is nothing under the “home” tab that one would guess should be categorized under “home”.  Is “home” a function, process, or task I do like insert, review, or view?  Why would I expect to change fonts, styles, and bullets under “home”?  Didn’t “paste” make more sense under “edit” (its old place) rather than “home” or “insert”?

I know that any UI design, particularly that of a complex system such as Office, is a choice between the lesser of evils.  Everyone thinks differently and I’m sure Microsoft did extensive research to ask people where they would look for things and my brain just isn’t on the same wavelength.  But that’s why I think personalization is so important.  You can never get it just right, so allowing the system to have dynamic last-used, first-shown buttons and movable tool bars helps each user adjust.  Sure training and support can be a little tougher when icons can move, but I think that problem is minimal compared to everyday use.  And I know you can do anything to the ribbons you want to programmatically, but it used to strike a better balance for the experienced user, but not one that wants to dig into code or buy a 3rd party product – like ones that put the interface back to what it was before.

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