Microsoft's ribbon interface draws frowns, smiles

The Office Fluent UI changes the desktop paradigm -- and opinion is mixed as to whether that's a good thing

Microsoft's Office 2007, and to a lesser extent Vista, is bringing a radical change to the desktop user interface. The Office Fluent UI feature -- the ribbon interface -- introduced in Office 2007 is Microsoft's attempt to help users get more out of Office applications. For nearly two decades, apps have relied on the menu interface to collect and expose features, but as programs' capabilities have ballooned, the menus have gotten overloaded. Software developers have tried various supplements, such as Office 2003's approach of hiding infrequently used menu items automatically, and Adobe's use of floating multi-tabbed feature panels -- approaches picked up by other developers as well.

But the ribbon interface is perhaps the most radical UI change since Windows 95 and the Mac's System 7 from the early 1990s. The ribbon presents commands organized as a set of commands most relevant for each task area. For example, Word has a tab labeled "References" for working with Word documents. The ribbon replaces menus and toolbars.

Its reception has been mixed.

[ See what InfoWorld SMB IT blogger has to say about living with Office 2007 ]

Why Microsoft made such a radical change
Microsoft officials, of course, laud the technology. In a presentation at the Microsoft's 2008 Office System Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif. last month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates characterized the Office Fluent UI as a success and said the company would be adding its capabilities to other systems. "We usability-tested it massively and, fortunately, it has had a very strong positive reaction," Gates said. The older interface obscured functionality, with Microsoft getting requests for capabilities that were already there, he said.

In developing the Office Fluent UI, Microsoft was looking for a way to handle the growing number of commands in Office, since the menus and toolbars couldn't handle them any longer, said Mark Alexieff, a senior product manager for Microsoft Office. "We got to a point where 10 years after [applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint] were released, the applications had 10 times more commands than they had at the beginning," he said. Users wanted to spend less time looking for features and figuring out how to use them, said Alexieff. "We shifted the focus to what are the ways we can most directly get people to the results they want," he said.

The use of an icon-laden ribbon also helped reduce screen real estate taken by the UI. "The design of the ribbon gave us the ability to use graphics [and] icons much more efficiently to help label commands," said Alexieff.

Why some people dislike Office Fluent
But there is a groundswell of opposition to the Office Fluent UI, despite Microsoft's testing.

"I dislike it. My wife dislikes it too," said Markian Zadony, who works at a financial services company. The Fluent UI is too radical of a departure, he said: "It's being forced down your throat, in essence."

His frustration centers around the fact that the ribbon tries to assume what a user wants to do, Zadony said -- often incorrectly. "It’s really trying to be smarter than you," Zadony said.

"A very big distinction, in addition to taking up a pretty large chunk of screen real estate, the ribbon also makes some assumptions about what you want to be seeing," said one commenter in an InfoWorld discussion thread. The public comment section of an MSDN blog also attracted criticisms, with one commenter calling the ribbon "ridiculous" and another saying Microsoft created problems with its introduction. "Office 2007 is hideous. The UI is abominable," said another post in the blog.

Distaste for Fluent UI is broad enough that it has even created a new market opportunity. A Chinese company, Addintools, is offering users a chance to revert back to the old-style menus with its Classic Menu for Office 2007. Since its February 2007 release, the program has gained more than 35,000 users, the company said.

With Office Fluent, Microsoft has taken away familiarity from users, said analyst Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz & Associates. In providing users a predetermined menu of capabilities, Microsoft is starting to introduce a form of artificial intelligence to the user interface, she said. "[However], it’s very hard for a system to really understand what it is that a customer wants to do."

Hurwitz is not convinced the UI change was for customers' benefit: "I think the issue is change for the sake of change." Microsoft "broke some things that didn't need to be broken," she added, noting that her comments reflect what she has heard from Office customers.

[ Learn what Office 2007 developers think about the new version ]

Why some people like Office Fluent
Some adopters are enthusiastic: Gary Wilhelm, a business and financial systems manager at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, said he finds that Office Fluent makes it easier to select a style or font in word. "You can kind of hover [over], highlight the information and select your font," he said. He suspects initial negative reaction to Office Fluent may be due to the significant change it imposes on users: "It took some getting used to because it was a big change."

Also among the supporters is Kevin Smyth, CIO at Cerner, a health care information technology provider. "I think my adoption curve was maybe about a week or so," he said. The software brings to the forefront capabilities that had been buried in menus, he said. Smyth also said he believes the interface has made Cerner employees more productivity.

The 2007 Office System client covers applications such as Excel and PowerPoint. There are separately licensed server technologies in Office System such as SharePoint. Microsoft shipped 2007 Office System to businesses on November 30, 2006 and to the general public January 30, 2007.

Other users said they just needed some time to get used to the ribbon. "It's becoming familiar," said Jen Glass, of developer OTB Solutions.

"[Fluent UI] is a change and it does require some adjustment but people very rapidly see the benefit in using the new UI," argued Microsoft's Alexieff. "It makes it easy to find commands, it makes it easy to use commands." Feedback is "overwhelmingly positive," he said.

No plans for changes to the ribbon
Microsoft currently is not planning any changes in Fluent UI to address concerns, Alexieff said. "We don’t see enough concerns in the users who are deploying it to make any retrofitting kind of changes to it," he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.