01 July 2010

Impressions about the Office Ribbon

You could say this article is three years overdue, since the ribbon first appeared in Office 2007. I didn’t come into contact with it until some three months ago, when I installed Office 2010 beta and, since Office 2010 was recently released in the final version, I think this is a good time to share some of my experience. I tend to leapfrog versions in Microsoft software, and until now I usually managed to skip the less polished ones. For example, my first PC had Windows 98 SE, then I upgraded to XP and avoided Vista to use Windows 7 now.

But back to the ribbon. I have read a lot of opinions and reports from people calling it inefficient or simply that they hate it and want the old menu system back. And I also experienced first hand the frustration of not finding a regular command in the newly-organized tabbed system. There are some online resources to help make the transition easier, like this interactive animation from Microsoft.

Probably some of the unhappiness comes from the fact that the ribbon is actually not that different from the menu system: instead of menus + toolbars you have tabs + larger buttons, similar to a toolbar, + menus when there is not enough room for all the options. The problem with this setup is that it introduces a new layer of complexity - the tabs. They hide the majority of the buttons from the user, so it’s a bit like having a set of overlapping application toolbars instead of a unified one.

That being said, the ribbon experience is usually mixed: better at surfacing some frequently used basic commands, while hiding away other. Filters in Excel and styles in Word are much more visible now and easier to use, but freezing panes takes an extra click, if you aren’t already on the ‘View’ tab. Some buttons – Page Layout options, for example - remember your last setting and make it easily available at the top of the menu. On the other hand advanced charting options in Excel – like axis and gridlines formatting – are buried away in 4 levels of tabs and submenus, making it frustrating and time-consuming to use the ribbon. It’s much easier in this case to double-click an axis in order to access the ‘More options…’ dialog box. And who needs half a ribbon only to list Excel functions?!

Starting with Office 2010, the ribbon can be customized to some degree. But given the complexity of the Office components, it’s difficult to create a single tab with the most frequently used commands.

Excel 2010 with minimized Ribbon compared with Chrome One of the nicer things about the ribbon is that it can be minimized to maximize screen space and reduce distractions. There is a dedicated button for that on the upper right, before the Help button, or you can double-click any tab. In the minimized state, the size of the top commands, including title bar, of the Office apps is comparable to . It doesn’t get any better than that short of going full-screen. If you need one of the ribbon commands, you can bring it back temporarily by single-clicking on the tab you need (or at least think you need).

Excel 2010 mini toolbar But here is the problem: once you click the button on the ribbon, it collapses again. Some Office commands require double (like ‘Format Painter’) or multiple clicks (increase/decrease font size or increase/decrease decimal in Excel), so it can be very annoying to repeat the same action with the ribbon minimized. Fortunately, there is a workaround for this: Office started to show a hovering mini-toolbar whenever you select something in Word or right-click in Excel. A small complement to the context menu, it includes precisely there commands where the minimized ribbon proves particularly tricky. One could think this is the way the engineers behind the project openly recognized the short-comings of the ribbon…

The thing I dislike the most about this new interface is the removal of the chart wizard in Excel. Previously, you could create the final chart completely inside the wizard, with titles, complex data sources, location inside the workbook, etc. There were very few things, mostly formatting, that needed to be applied afterwards. Now, if you use the keyboard shortcut F11 that used to invoke the wizard in versions before the ribbon, Excel inserts a blank chart! The ribbon spreads the necessary steps to create a useful chart across three different tabs and I find this process unnecessarily complicated.

In my opinion, the ribbon is better suited for Office beginners and medium-level users and less complex software. It works nicely in WordPad and Paint, but these are much simpler applications; all their commands could potentially fit in a single tab. In Office, the ribbon crumbles under the number of options it has to accommodate and the user will naturally feel overwhelmed by the changes, especially because there doesn’t seem to be a clear rule to them. For power-users, most of the actions can be done quicker through either keyboard shortcuts or context menus. This is probably the best strategy in dealing with the ribbon: minimize and try to ignore it as much as possible, use alternative ways to get your work done. I think this is more efficient than spending a lot of time learning the location of various commands; who knows when they will be reorganized again?

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