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The first time I ever used it was at my current job. Among my coworkers, the feelings toward it for usability are mixed. The other developer doesn't really care one way or the other, as long as Office does everything he needs it to do when writing reports. The top manager likes it because it feels natural, and I feel the same way. But another coworker finds in klunky and hard to use (although she admits that she only uses it at home as her machine hasn't been upgraded yet, and that might change if she uses it more often at work).

So - is the Ribbon UI really that innovative? What qualities about it make it a good or bad user interface mechanism?

Possibly related: Adoption of the Ribbon UI

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I think its interesting to turn the question around: If Office 2003 was the new version replacing the 2007 ribbon with a new UI - what would we think of it ? –  PhillipW Jun 17 '11 at 9:25
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The ribbon is good because the buttons are bigger and easier to hit. The rest of word is a pain mind you.... –  colmcq Jun 17 '11 at 13:50
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Being able to discover new functionality is great, except I couldn't find the functionality I commonly used. The old menu structure, from the previous version, was restructured and a new interface was introduced. A better implementation would have been to restructure the menus in one version, then introduce the Ribbon in the next. Or, introduce the Ribbon with the old menu structure, then restructure the functionality in the next version. –  eBeth Jun 18 '11 at 13:31
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People stick to habits, they don't like to change their view/opinions. Ribbon is different than the memorized interfaces, therefore the "hate" and "complains". Being good is ortoghonal to being different. –  user712092 Nov 6 '11 at 13:42
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@user712092 that's right, but says nothing about the ribbon UI. –  peterchen Nov 9 '12 at 8:31

13 Answers 13

up vote 77 down vote accepted

One of the main drivers behind the Ribbon was discoverability of new functions. This was driven by research conducted by Microsoft that indicated that a large number of most requested features for Word actually already existed in the product; the user simply didn't know where to find it.

So the big, bold nature of the Ribbon actually lends itself to a browsing for features - far more so than menus, anyway. Keyboard shortcuts still exist for the Word/Excel ninjas, anyway ;)

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Another great thing about the ribbon in office is that most of the formatting functions, preview the result when you hover over them. This really makes it easy to quickly get the desired formatting changes. –  Stefan Rusek Sep 22 '08 at 12:22
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Conversely the Ribbon did a great job of hiding existing functions! –  titanae Sep 22 '08 at 12:26
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That's why they made the hoverbar - so you could find all the simple formatting functions you thought you'd lost ;) –  moobaa Sep 22 '08 at 12:29
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I recommend everyone to watch "The Story of the Ribbon" (blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/archive/2008/03/12/…) video -- you will learn a lot from it! –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:41
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That's the motivation; do we know if it actually worked? That is, has anybody done usability studies of the ribbon, comparing discoverability to the prior version? –  Monica Cellio Nov 9 '12 at 18:37

If you want the definitive answer then read Jensen Harris' blog entries (the office UI lead) which takes you right from the problems to the inception and development of the solution in the form of the ribbon.

It's a truly fascinating read, but you'll need to set aside literally a full day to get through all the posts.

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There are three groups of Office users:

  1. Casual, or Know-nothing Users. This is your mom trying to type a recipe in Word, or your dad trying to make a list in Excel. These are the people who have no idea how to format tabs, they just hit the spacebar until the cursor is in about the right place. For these people, the Ribbon UI is a godsend, since they don't know what they're doing really. It makes it easier. They weren't used to the old style, so they don't care that it's gone.

  2. Hardcore Users. These people are fine because any seriously hardcore Office user uses keyboard shortcuts for everything. None of the keyboard shortcuts changed, so these people are unaffected by the upgrade. They might actually gain something, since anything they didn't know the shortcut to, they now have an incentive to learn.

  3. Middle Users. People who use Office for various tasks, more than a Casual user, but not as much as a Hardcore user. This includes most programmers. They know just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be proficient. The Ribbon UI annoys them most of all, just because it's different. But they'll get used to it, get over it, and probably learn more stuff about Office and how to use it as a result. The most important part is that none of them will feel strongly about it to change to something else.

So, the one group that doesn't like it won't change and the other two are fine with it. This is why the uptake on Office 2007 is 2X the uptake of Office 2003, which was more or less Office 2000 with an updated UI.

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At least a couple of the keyboard shortcuts were changed: blog.jonschneider.com/2006/11/… –  Jon Schneider Sep 23 '08 at 0:38
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I am a Hardcore Office User, and while the Ribbon changed the places of all the commands, it made them easier to find. And I discovered features that were already in Office 2003 I thought weren't there! –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:54
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I used some old version years ago, then only OpenOffice. Some time ago had to help someone with a Word problem, and I didn't find anything. (I suppose I'm a middle user here?) –  Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 17 '11 at 22:35
    
Personally, I disagree with the speculation that "just because it's different" is the only reason why, as a "middle user", I am annoyed by the Ribbon UI. When I first saw the Ribbon UI in 2009, I was annoyed because it was more difficult to find certain commands. Especially as a "middle user" who is not averse to using advanced features, but doesn't always know instantly where to find them, I heavily rely on online references to find out where some command is located and what exactly is its name. The Ribbon UI partially broke that option, and I am still annoyed by Ribbons now, in 2014. –  O. R. Mapper Oct 4 at 11:27

Well, except for the amount of space used, I found it more user-friendly than the classical menu bar. There are many reasons for this:

  • Images: Icons are bigger than on classical menu and toolbar, making it easier to understand for newcomers.
  • Previsualisation: Nearly all the actions that affect the layout can be previewed without leaving the ribbon, making it more simple to do some try for formatting without losing the whole path to go through.
  • Key Navigation: A visual help is given for people who want to learn the "keyboard" path to access an action. Nearly all the actions have a "key indice" when pressing ALT to find the right element to select.
  • Better organised: I found that the new grouping of functionality they introduce with the ribbon usually fits better what people are expecting to find. Of course, it may require a little more adaptation for experienced users, but it is not really a big deal, as these people are also generally more able to memorize new shortcuts.
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All commands (except checkboxes) have icons! Icon designers of Office 2007 did hard work and great job. –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:43
    
Regarding "Previsualisation": This is what makes the Ribbon different from "Just Tabbed Toolbars". I've read arguments that Ribbon just copied the Tabbed Toolbar concepts from Delphi and Homesite applications, but the work done in inventing the Ribbon is more than that. –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:45
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Is "previsualisation" really a Ribbon feature? Maybe it was introduced at the same time as ribbons, but couldn't the same be achieved with a usual toolbar, or even while hovering over menu commands? –  O. R. Mapper Oct 4 at 11:29

Personally I quite like using it. I too heard the message that most feature requests for Office were for features that were already in the product. There's another aspect of the Ribbon that I don't think has been commented on here: end-user customisability, or the lack thereof...

We developers can customize the ribbon in Office apps, of course. But users actually can't. Remember the command bars in Office 2003? Of course you do. Again, we quite like ability to drag them around and add/remove buttons from them. But for most users this was a real problem. It was far too easy to accidentally drag a command bar to a different part of the window, or to remove buttons unintentionally. Apparently, a huge number of Office 2003 customers reported having to re-install because their "save" button had disappeared.

In the ribbon, the only end-user customisable UI is the so-called "quick-access toolbar" which normally grows from left-to-right along the title bar of the window. This could be an annoyance for power users, but should lead to fewer support calls.

Developers modify the ribbon in the Office apps via an XML definition. This can be supplied in add-in code, a VBA macro, or even in an Office document (the new packaged XML kind). That's quite neat, and leads to new possibilities: I could create a form in Excel for example and email it around with a custom ribbon definition. People who open my document can't access any of the normal features, but can see my custom ribbon buttons, that maybe invoke some macros. I dunno, I've not done it in anger, but it might be useful for someone.

I've never really understood why 3rd-party apps feel the need to copy the Office UI. After Office 2007 launched, there was a rash of lookalike Ribbon controls from all the usual control vendors. To my eye, none of them does a great job of mimicking the "real" ribbon. It seems to me that if/when the package comes along that defeats Microsoft Office, it won't be by copying the Office UI. So I reckon it makes sense to think about the right UI for your app rather than blindly adopting the ribbon. Microsoft themselves have said that the ribbon makes sense for those Office apps that contain a huge number of discrete function points, but not for those apps with fewer.

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I am an Office Power user, and I find the Quick Access Toolbar fine, as long as they let me customize keyboard shortcuts in the next version of Office (especially Microsoft Excel!!!) –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:48
    
+1. Here in the university's computer pool with KDE 4.5 regularly people succeed to accidentially remove the task bar (i.e. the part of the bar which shows the open windows). I then show them how to get it back and lock the widgets. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 17 '11 at 22:39

Keyboard-related usability issues with the Ribbon

The ribbon is great for the discoverability of mouse access to features. However, in my experience, that same user experience isn't really there for when it comes to keyboard access. The main problems are that Office 2003 keyboard shortcuts are no longer discoverable, and the new Office 2007 "Alt key" keyboard shortcuts are often unintuitive.

(Note: These comments are based on a blog post about the Office 2007 Ribbon that I made back in December 2006; one or both of these issues may have been corrected in a subsequent release of Office.)

Discoverability of Word 2003 keystrokes: If I'm using Word 2007 and want to add a new row to a table, I might remember that the Word 2003 shortcut for "add a new table row" starts with Alt+A (table menu), but not what comes after that. Word 2007 doesn't provide any clues after the Alt+A press -- it just shows "Office 2003 access key: Alt, A, ...". This is worse than the user experience from Word 2003, where the Table menu would have become visible, and the next available keystrokes would have been visible on the menu (in the underlined letters of menu items).

Unintuitive new Office 2007 keyboard shortcuts: The new Office 2007 "Alt key" keyboard shortcuts are often quite unintuitive and difficult to remember (at least in the English language version of Office) -- possibly because many of the available mappings are already consumed in providing Office 2003 backward compatiblity. For example, the keystroke sequence for accessing the basic "Find" function in Word 2007 via the Home ribbon is: Alt+H, Z, N, F, D, F -- 6 keystrokes! And sequences like the "Z, N" to open the Edit sub-section of the Home ribbon are not very intuitive or memorable.

(Obviously, the Find feature is much more easily accessible with a press of just Ctrl+F, but not all Office features have a simple Ctrl-key shortcut.)

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I've got the following probelms with the ribbon bar:

  1. It takes up an immense amount of space which on a small screened laptop can actually be really irritating. You can however hide the ribbon bar, but the means to do this is not obvious.
  2. There is no way to revert to a "Classic view", I've spent quite some time looking for features which I knew exactly where they were in the old version of word.

At my previous job the ribbon bar was added to thier main client application and it worked a treat, so it can be useful, however I'd like the option of going back to the old way of doing things.

That said I'm stuck in my ways, the first thing I do when I get a new windows box it to revert the theme to windows classic because I think the default XP theme looks cheap and a bit fischer price...

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Here's a poor man's Ribbon implementation: 1. Do not use menus. 2. Use one to two toolbars in your app. 3. All commands should have labels. 4. Eliminate duplicate command buttons. Example, there's no need to add an "Exit" button because your window already has it. –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:51

It's the same as with any major UI alteration.

  • People familiar with the old UI have to re-learn and that's a considerable downside for them.
  • New (and less experienced users) have fewer adjustment to make.

Familiarity with an old interface (or just another interface) may already bias you against change.

Objective usability testing is really hard. Hey, even just working out what you need to test is hard. What is more important? That users can do repetitive tasks quickly or that they can find powerful features quickly and/or intuitively? And what about making features easy to train?

A lot of people (perhaps the OP included) seem to assume that Microsoft's UX changes are there for the sake of change. They may well be... But the developers do a pretty decent job of explaining the need for change. And they claim it's a tested benefit.

If you don't like it, consider that you're not every user. Perhaps there are simply just more people who need a different tool to the one you need. If Microsoft can detect that, they're going to gear things to the bigger market, every time.

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A problem with ribbons in this respect is that they are much more difficult to learn: For menus, all commands and menu titles are indicated in text form in the application, so documentation or tutorials can easily indicate the hierarchical order - fictional example: Edit -> Insert -> From File.... With ribbons, that is not possible, as some commands are only icons (without text), some commands regular buttons at all, but hidden in the ribbon group title, and also, each hierarchy level is different (tabs, then ribbon groups, then drop-down buttons etc.), as opposed to uniform submenus. –  O. R. Mapper Oct 4 at 11:36
    
@O.R.Mapper I think there was a definite focus on intuitive usability. I won't defend every change but I think the overall outcome is a product that more people can just use without hours of training. I've edited my five year old answer to reflect this. –  Oli Oct 4 at 12:05
    
Thanks for the changes - meanwhile, I, too, have added an answer where I detail some verifiable points about the Ribbon paradigm in comparison to traditional menus. –  O. R. Mapper Oct 4 at 12:16

One of the issues, as I understand it, that led to the implementation of the Ribbon is this: since about Office '97, there really haven't been any/many features added to Office.

What the Office team discovered, however, was that they still got requests for new functionality - features they had already implemented, but that were buried so far in the UI that very few people had found them or used them regularly. Thus was the Ribbon born, to expose that functionality immediately to the user.

Whether it's really that great is all up to the users.

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I know that this thread was from a lot of years ago, but I was feeling in an irritable mood after yet again having to click-click-click my way just to change to a new window in Excel. (And Alt-Tab is not a solution; I have a LOT of windows open constantly and having to shuffle through every window of every application that I have open is nowhere near as convenient, when it comes to switching between the three workbooks that I might have open, as an always-present drop-down list as we had in the 2003 era. Nor is moving the mouse alllll the way to the bottom and trying to pluck out the window that relates to the workbook that I want to move to, especially when it's simultaneously cluttered with unrelated (IMHO) windows like the VBE or a number of non-modal pop-ups. Yes, the VBE is part of Excel but if I want to move to the VBE then it's not the same as wanting to move to another worksheet.)

I did a search to see how many others felt similarly, and one of the search results that was returned was GregMac's post.

However. I will give MS one point with regard to the abomination that is the ribbon and it's this; in 2010 at least, you can add the switch windows drop down to the Quick Access Toolbar. I still don't find it as intuitive as the old View menu since it's alllll the way over on the left which generally means, as a right hander, dragging the mouse across most of the screen. But at least it's there. This may help someone who has been similarly irritated and wants a workaround.

But the thing that really annoys me (other than people who state that the only people who hate the ribbon are ones who are not open to change, whereas the reality that many think, with valid reasons, that it's simply a bad design) is the way MS preserved their own keyboard shortcuts but said "screw you" to those who created their own tools and add-ins. In Word 2003 I had a toolbar which had all of my most common commands, accessible by keyboard shortcuts. It was a HUGE productivity booster. But now, the former toolbar sits on a tab where yes, I can still point to it and click my mouse on it, but can no longer access all of those commands, many of which call custom VBA procedures, without lifting my hand from the keyboard.

Or take another Excel add-in that I use. To open its main dialog in Excel 2003, it's [Alt] [1] [S]. Bingo, done and dusted. And since the "1" is part of the add-in's name and the S is the first letter of the name of the dialog that opens, it's totally intuitive. In 2010? Alt+ [Shift] + [1] (to give [Alt] + [!]) followed by Y3. Yeah, that makes life just so much easier. But hey, the original keyboard shortcuts weren't native Microsoft ones, so they can't be important. And in any case who wants to use a keyboard when you can return to the salad days of being a 3 year old and moving your hand back and forth to a mouse so that you can click on big, chunky, brightly coloured icons just like you used to with Fisher Price toys?

It's great that the world is returning to pre-literacy with icons that you can point to and swoosh and swipe, but I can't help feeling that perhaps, just possibly, a GUI which requires more time moving to and from the mouse, which sweeps away 20 years of experience with a single blow, and which in 2007 was almost completely un-customisable and is only slightly better now (again, where are the THIRD PARTY-DEFINED keyboard shortcuts)... well, let's just say that I don't see it providing huge leaps in productivity when it comes to doing serious work rather than watching kitten videos on You Tube. I'm not saying that all-brightly-coloured-icons-all-the-time-no-words-needed tablets and phones don't have a place, I just don't think that office applications are it.

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The ribbon seems like its great, but I tried it once and I didn't like it.

I had the following problems:

  1. It took lots of space
  2. I wasn't used to it
  3. The instant preview of styles messed things up because I didn't want to instantly preview
  4. The style box was not as handy as a plain list of style names constantly open.

The fourth part is one major problem there. I know what my styles look like, I just want a simple list of my styles, not some fancy bloated system. I am not playing a game of exploration while I work.

In Open Office I could limit only custom styles to the plain simple list of styles. That would be handy in Word too. Otherwise Word usually has lots of weird auto generated styles.

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I think it has promise - it has the beginnings of a decent UI - but it's not there yet. One thing I find particularly annoying is having to constantly flip between different views for two different functions. I've had the most trouble with this in a non-MS app called SmartDraw, but if that's an indication of how other companies are going to use it, we're in for a bumpy ride. Not everyone is going to do usability studies and put the proper effort into designing a proper UI.

The other thing that is particularly annoying is the Window menu is gone. To switch Windows, you now have to go to the "Views" ribbon or something, then click a "Switch window" dropdown, and then pick your window. What used to take 2 clicks, now takes 3. If you are comparing results or doing modifications between the two, it means you're constantly flipping around. It wouldn't be so bad if you could just use the regular Windows taskbar, but they've even messed that up, and taskbar items will rearrange themselves when you minimize etc making them impossible to find.

[/grumpy ranting]

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Window menu being gone is ok: I can switch between documents using the Taskbar or Alt+Tab. I think they did this by design because a lot of users find it hard how to switch to another document, so what they did was to show each open document on the taskbar (but the program is still 1 instance). –  thenonhacker Jan 6 '09 at 7:57

In this answer, I will only consider the discoverability of features and not discuss the mere graphical design, or aspects such as the size occupied (as they are very implementation-specific).

In my opinion, there are two aspects in the discoverability of features:


The first is discoverability by the user without any external information: Just by visually scanning a ribbon, one may or may not be able to recognize a particular feature. Without knowing what ribbon a given feature is placed in, one has to switch through each tab, just like what one could do with menus.

A slight disadvantage of ribbons in this respect might be that the buttons are "all over the place"; they come in different sizes, and their layout is (while rectangular), accordingly "chaotic" (for an example, have a look at the Slides group in this screenshot). This is in contrast to menus, which have two clear columns (one for icons, one for the command title).

What is more, some of the icons on Ribbons lack the text, which is not helpful if you are looking for a command and have a certain idea of what it's called, but no idea how its icon would look like. Like this, commands can hide "in plain sight" on Ribbons, which is never the case in menus.


The second aspect is discoverability by the user based on instructions: In my opinion, this is where Ribbons are incredibly weak compared to traditional menus.

The first issue in this respect is related to Ribbons not showing any text for some of the commands. For a menu structure, textual instructions (on a tutorial website, in a book, in a chat window, or spoken on the phone ...) can very easily relay where to find a particular command in a menu (fictional example, for (intentional) lack of an MS Office installation on my computers): "Click Edit -> Import -> From File -> Via Plugin. The same is rarely possible for Ribbons, as some icons do not display any text, and texts are displayed in different locations. For an example, refer to the aforementioned screenshot once again: Some texts are on the right of icons, some below, group headers are below, ribbon headers above.

Essentially, it is the same reason why, with traditional menus, such instructions would usually refer to the menu rather than the toolbar.

Furthermore, while in menus, going to the next level of hierarchy is a straightforward activity that works the same way on each hierarchy level: You hover over/click a menu item, and a nested submenu appears. In Ribbons, on the other hand, each level of hierarchy works differently. Sometimes, it is a tab, sometimes, a group (in the case of groups, no input is required, just visual scanning), sometimes, you need to click on a group header to open the "group dialog box" (and even that is not uniform, as some groups do not have a dialog box and their headers are not clickable), sometimes, you need to open a dropdown menu from a button, which makes the whole process very confusing.


P.S.: A lot of answers seem to mix up what is and what is not part of the "Ribbon interface" as such. One of the most controversial properties that is often cited in answers here and elsewhere seems to be the reorganization of a variety of options. Those who praise Ribbons sometimes praise them because they perceive the grouping in Ribbons more logical, while those who dislike Ribbons (and also those who talk about users who dislike Ribbons) often point out that users used to the old menu structure are used to the old grouping of commands and thus are annoyed because they have to relearn where to find commands. However, that change merely coincided with the introduction of Ribbons in MS Office, it is not inherent to the Ribbon interface. The very same reorganization could have been conducted in the old menu structure. Hence, commands being grouped in a more logical way and users being averse to change and having to relearn may both be true and valid points, but they are unrelated to the Ribbon UI.

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