Dare Obasanjo has noticed a comment of mine on Jensen Harris’s post announcing Microsoft’s licensing of the concept of the Office 2007 ‘Ribbon’ UI. In that comment, I criticised (in a single sentence) Dare’s concept for a future version of RSS Bandit. I should say up-front that I’m a regular user of RSS Bandit; it’s my main RSS reader at home, in which I’m subscribed to over 100 feeds. I want this to remain usable, and my fear is that it won’t be.
Funnily, he doesn’t acknowledge that I made the first comment on that post, in which I go into detail. I said:
It doesn't belong. There's no need to go to an Office-style menu system in RSS Bandit because you barely ever use the menus anyway. It's not like there are loads of features hidden in the depths of the menus and dialogs, and the gallery is particularly over-the-top. How often do you think people will change the style of the newspaper view? Virtually never, in my opinion - they'll pick one that works, and stick with it. These options don't need to be 'in your face' the whole time. RSS Bandit is not document authoring software, it's a browser.
If anything you could follow IE7's lead and drop the menu bar entirely. There aren't that many menu options, and most of them are replicated with some other widget, on one of the toolbars, or in the case of View/Feed Subscriptions and View/Search, the two tabs in the pane.
Most of the other options that aren't duplicated could end up on an extended Tools menu.
Dare links to Mike Torres who comments on the menu-less UI of various Microsoft applications, suggesting that this is something recent. At least two of these have been menu-less for a while, in one case for five years: Windows Media Player. The original version of WMP in Windows XP was without menus:
(screenshot from http://www.winsupersite.com/reviews/wm9series.asp).
The highly-unconventional window shape was toned down in version 9.0 and became virtually conventional in 10.0, although all four corners are rounded whereas the normal XP themes have rounded top corners and square bottom corners.
It appears that the menus first disappeared from MSN Messenger in version 7.0, which was released in April 2005:
(screenshot from http://www.winsupersite.com/reviews/msn_messenger7.asp)
Which Office application is RSS Bandit most like? Word? Excel? No. It’s most like Outlook. Which major Office 2007 application does not get a Ribbon (in its main UI)? Outlook.
I’ve been following Jensen Harris’s blog more-or-less since the beginning. In it, he explains the motivations behind creating the Ribbon, and the data that was used to feed the process of developing it. The Ribbon is mainly about creating better access to creating and formatting documents, by showing the user a gallery of choices and allowing them to refine it. Which part of Outlook gets a Ribbon? The message editor (OK, this is actually part of Word).
RSS Bandit is about viewing other people’s content, for which the best analogy is probably IE7.
I haven’t done any UI studies. I’ve not taken part in any. But Microsoft have analysed their UIs. They’ve gathered data on how those interfaces are used – automatically, in some cases (the Customer Experience Improvement Programs). The Ribbon is an improvement for Office. It’s not going to be right for all applications. Many applications actually suffer in the classic File/Edit/View/Tools/Help system: the menus tend to either be padded with commands that are duplicated elsewhere, or are ridiculously short (e.g. RSS Bandit’s ‘Edit’ menu which only has a ‘Select All’ option, which if you’re currently looking at a browser tab appears to do nothing – it’s only when you switch back to the Feed tab that you notice it’s selected all the items in the current feed or feed group). They’ll suffer equally in the Ribbon, particularly if there are too few features to make a Ribbon worthwhile.
When designing a UI for your application, don’t be too slavish to a particular model. If you find yourself padding out the menus to conform to the File/Edit/View model, or if all your commands are on the Tools menu, a classic menu probably doesn’t fit. If you’re not offering a feature for the user to customise the formatting of something, which the user will use regularly, a Ribbon is probably also wrong. The standard toolbar is probably enough.