The main application I'm working on has a very traditional (and boring) old school menu and toolbar, the toolbar indeed just a row of 16 small icons.

It has worked for us well over the years, but there are growing requests to put more features there, often "because it's so good it deserves a button".

It seems to be time to update the general look and feel, so before I start to clutter the toolbar I want to evaluate alternatives.


  • Discovery of some important but context - specific commands and keyboard shortcuts
  • Discovery of advanced operations that are currently "hidden" in context menus, or sometimes indeed just the manual
  • Dated look


I've tried to overcome my ribbon aversions and mock a replacement. I'm OK with the results, but they are a bit underwhelming and it will be hard to overcome "ribbon aversion" for our customers or even in the dev team. Issues/results here are:

  • A general impression of wasted space. Since we show a lot of data, this is relevant (incidentally, why are there no vertical ones?)
  • Tabs are not necessary most of the time, I'd likely end up with a main tab and one or two context tabs
  • I understand the motivation behind a "static interface, and largely support it, however, we do need some context sensitivity that sems to go against the concept (and maybe even the API). For example, we have a set of operations for a selected element, but they differ depending on the element - often slightly, sometimes more, often it's a similar command but should naturally be a different icon. Showing all and disabling the unavailable would lead to clutter.
  • Quick Access Toolbar works very well out of the box, but the toolbar itself either "vanishes" in the title bar, or is another space-wasting band.
  • Good keyboard shortcut discovery (assuming we get it to work for non-ALT-keys, too)

Modern Menu + Toolbar

While I see different purposes - menu gives keyboard access to all commands, toolbar quick access to common commands with visual cues - they have grown together in looks and functionality over the years, so much that they look like a dead end. I particulary dislike the usually highly complex customization.

Some background

Roughly, the application is "toolbar, menu, navigation pane, and MDI area for many windows". We have about ~60 commands total, a third deserves to be buried. In addition to that the chart windows have 10..20 depending on content, they are usually accessed through context menu and shortcuts right now.

Despite the complexity, we don't have a "settings" dialog. There are a few options buried in context. (I found most option requests come from the devs themselves that want to offload a decision on the user. Asking "how woudl the user make that decision" kills most of them.)

We have some local toolbars (two common forms, and one of the navigation tree panels), they "feel" OK, but aren't perfect.

Many products aimed at our customers expose a "three rows of toolbars with hundreds of icons constantly shifting" battlefield, customers are generally happy we don't do that.

What do I want from you?

Ideas, inspiration, suggestion, experiences.

  • Do you have a specific question you want answering? This seems a bit vague.
    – kastark
    Nov 30, 2012 at 16:50
  • You need to put up some screenshots and be more clear with regards to what you are trying to achieve
    – Mervin
    Nov 30, 2012 at 18:19
  • At the moment I am looking for ideas and inspiration. You are probably be right, that may be to vague for UX/SO. --- If would be straightforward to jump on a toolbar/menu library, use bigger icons and icon+text+dropdown toolbars, but none of the standard solutions are exciting my UX sense.
    – peterchen
    Dec 1, 2012 at 16:37

2 Answers 2


I recommend to watch the video of UX9 about "The Story of the Ribbon" and download the slideshow. Its pretty interesting and you will gain some insights, that might match your creteria and furthermore you will get a lot of inspirations.

  • They show an iterative design story and different prototypical UIs (menu+toolbar as well)
  • A case study of context sensitive menus.

And it might help your aversion against the Ribbon - developed to increase findability of menu items, which exploded in Word 2003 up to 450 items! Users moaned for features already implemented, but they couldnt find it. Ribbon solved this. And I think very effective and standard user compatible.

And take a look at AutoDesks Ribbon - it looks pretty slick. enter image description here

Source: sps-magazin.de

  • you convinced me. Now I have to find a good ribbon.However many applications like photoshop dont use a ribbon
    – GorillaApe
    Oct 1, 2014 at 1:13
  • The video and slides are no longer available. Jan 31, 2019 at 20:59

Here are some ideas:

1) There's nothing wrong with vertical "ribbon" panel on the side if it allows more useful real estate for the main application area.

2) Definitely try (hard) to keep it static and without tabs, make the panel wider (or taller) if need be.

3) Have a very obvious disabled indication for the elements (tools) in the panel to support context sensitivity. The set of enabled elements would change depending on the context (but nothing would move).

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