Wednesday, 20 December 2006

How to misuse the Office 2007 Ribbon

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:

Windows Media Player for Windows XP (WMP 8)

(screenshot from

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:

MSN Messenger 7.0

(screenshot from

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.


KiwiBlue said...

It's too late. Every self-respecting RSS app in the universe must go for "stunning modern visual appearance":

Anonymous said...

Before I comment: I'm Stu Smith, one of the authors of FeedGhost.

We are proud of the way FeedGhost looks -- customers generally wouldn't want a "tired old-fashioned seen-it-all before visual appearance", but as the original poster points out, slavish copying isn't so good either.

Originally FeedGhost was pretty standard -- menubar, statusbar, toolbar, etc (which, incidentally, is another form of thoughtless copying). We found however that the menu structure didn't really 'work', in that we only had a few menus, and each only had a couple of items. FeedGhost doesn't really have that many top-level commands. Equally the toolbar looked boring, and with 16x16 icons, at the time, didn't stretch all the way across, giving a very unbalanced appearance. We tried Outlook bars (eg at the bottom of and various other ideas.

In the end we took the idea of dynamically sizing buttons on the toolbar based on importanct from the MS ribbon, but we dropped other features such as tabs, drop-downs, etc.

My personal belief in the matter is that contextual commands, ie commands that sit next to the item they operate on, will almost always beat a complete collection of commands that are (a) nowhere near what they operate on and (b) turn on and off depending on what you have selected. I am of course referring to the doctrine that "every command must have an equivalent menu entry". I say rubbish to that.

Quite a long comment but I'm summing up now: FeedGhost did take some elements from the ribbon concept, but certainly not all of them. If you look through my blog you'll see that we're continually trying to improve the user experience of FeedGhost, and this is backed up by informal user testing and feedback from our users. My message would be: try FeedGhost. It does have a pretty face, but there's brains beneath it. If you don't like it, please please please let us know: we have plenty of feedback options available on our website. As an example, one user did in fact suggest the ribbon is too prominent for advanced users. Well, tomorrow's work item for me is to look into ways of providing smaller or hidden ribbon views.

Stu Smith (FeedGhost)

Mike C said...

"Licensing the concept" is what gets me. The ribbon concept is a botch-together of pre-existing concepts. Why anyone would need to license it is beyond me. Except Microsoft who want to set a precident that it IS licensable. It's basically a stretched, tabbed toolbox, bunged where menus used to live, AND THATS ALL IT IS. Not new or innovative or patentable or licensable. Check out the inspector of Apple Pages or Keynote for a couple of off-the-cuff examples.

Anonymous said...

Why bother to choose between the Ribbon and the classic menus. ToolbarToggle brings back the original 2003 classic menus and toolbars into Office 2007 (Word / Excel PowerPoint).

Install the free trial from http://WWW.TOOLBARTOGGLE.COM and Office 2007 will display the original Office 2003 toolbars and menus with or without the “fluent” Office 2007 Ribbon. ToolbarToggle returns the ability to float, dock, crate new and customize any items with your office application’s macros and auto text.