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In the Real World—Reading the Ribbon UI's Tealeaves

Most computer analysts and pundits have given 2007 Microsoft Office System's new Ribbon UI one or two thumbs up. The general consensus appears to be that replacing hierarchical menus and toolbar buttons with ribbons containing command buttons and galleries aids users in discovering application features. But comparative usability studies might have been skewed by the use of IntelliMenus and rafted toolbars in Office 2000 and later.

IntelliMenus, also called personalized or adaptive menus, attempted to cause usage patterns to determine which menu choices should appear by default. The most popular choices appeared first in a "short menu." After a few seconds (or if you clicked a chevron icon at the bottom of the menu list), the hidden choices expanded the list to a "long menu." After a few hours or days of work, users saw only short menus with the choices that they used frequently.

Jensen Harris, Group Program Manager of the Microsoft Office User Experience Team, made these basic observations about IntelliMenus in his Office User Interface Blog (http://blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/):

  • "There was no way to get the default 'short' menu right."
  • "Once the default short menu was wrong, the user was forced to scan the menu."
  • "Auto-customization, unless it does a perfect job, is usually worse than no customization at all."

Office versions also adopted "rafted toolbars," which enabled more than one toolbar to occupy the same vertical display space by exiling lesser-used buttons to an overflow (more buttons) area. According to Harris, rafted toolbars had the same deficiencies as IntelliMenus—just replace "menu" with "toolbar" in the preceding list. Another "feature" of rafted toolbars was the ability to drag and anchor them to any side of an Office application's window or allow them to float in its workspace.

The Ribbon UI eliminates the use of adaptive menus and rafted toolbars problems, but these miscreant approaches were wrong from the git-go. However, the new face on Access 2007 doesn't get rid of all hierarchical menus. Most galleries and many context menus have one or more levels of additional choices.

Jensen said in a December 2005 presentation to the BayCHI, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), that fewer than 2% of Microsoft Word users customize it intentionally. However, the percentage of Access 2003 and earlier users and developers who customized Access toolbars and menus is probably closer to 20%. The arcane RibbonX approach to modifying or extending ribbons, groups, or galleries is far more complex than customizing toolbars and menu bars with Access macros or VBA.

When this book was written, the jury was out on the extent to which the new Ribbon UI increases the efficiency of Access users and developers, if at all. Forrester Research has determined that workers migrating to Microsoft Office 2007 will require "more intense" training than expected. This factor contributes to Forrester's estimate that most organizations won't upgrade to Office 2007 for three to five years. At the risk of damnation by faint praise, there's no question that the ribbon is a far better UI metaphor than Microsoft Bob.

P.S.: If you've never seen Microsoft Bob, the 1995 GUI shell intended to overlay and simplify the Windows 3.1 and 95 UI for new users, check out http://toastytech.com/guis/bob.html.

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