2008-11-26

Why I hate ribbons

Ribbons are those fancy new toolbars of Microsoft Office 2007. I read an article a longer time ago from Microsoft telling that they did some survey before the release of Office 2007 to ask people what features they would like to have in the next versions. And it turned out that a very lot of features the people were asking were already there in 2003. This made them think about why the users didn't find those features that are already there. And that made them redesign the user interface.

In my opinion they made the first error already there: An application that offers many features can't be mastered fully by everybody. And people often do things as they were used to for many years. The only thing you can try is to get a good structure how your features are sorted and organized in the application so that people intuitively find what they are looking for - if they would look up (and many don't - just when you ask them what features they would like to have they start inventing and thinking).

  • Ribbon bars are no guarantee for a well structured organization of program features.
    And indeed, Microsoft didn't organize many things well. For instance I do not know why the macros are under "View".

  • Ribbons take more space than normal menus and toolbars.
    This might not be very important for big screen resolutions but when I use bigger resolutions and larger monitors I want to reduce the window size to see more windows and not one window bigger.

  • Buttons are different sizes and according to Murphy's law those I need are tiny and those I don't are huge.
    Microsoft (or the appropriate software designers) decided about the size of particular icons in the bar. They adapted it to the desires of the mean user. But who is the mean user? This is a person that in reality does not exist. And so some button sizes can fit for some users.

  • Ribbons are a replacement for toolbars and not a replacement for menus.
    When introducing ribbons Microsoft dropped the pull-down menus. But on the ribbons only a few features are displayed and many are hidden behind a very tiny button on the lower right. If they would just have dropped the old toolbars for the ribbons then I would have understood more.

  • Buttons are not general in line.
    The buttons on the ribbons are not always ordered next to each other. Some are left and right others are above and below. This makes it more difficult for the user to get along.

  • Ribbons are not customizable.
    Older Office versions had completely customizable toolbars. With the introduction of the ribbons this feature has completely gone.
These were just the general issues with ribbons and I am not talking about things that are Microsoft specific. For instance that behind the tiny buttons on the lower left you get to the old dialogs so that the ribbons are only facade.

Just a side note: There are free Ribbon components for Java (Flamingo) available (and I guess also for .NET although a quick search on Google only showed up commercial variants). So it is not a matter of inability to create such a GUI why I don't like them.

9 comments:

David Ziffer said...

You may be interested in my diatribe on this subject (and related subjects) at:

http://www.projectpro.com/letters/usability.html

Martin Wildam said...

Thanks for your addition - in fact, Internet is full of people who hate the ribbons, e.g.

http://www.technologyquestions.com/technology/microsoft-office/237353-hate-ribbons.html

http://forums.techarena.in/ms-office-support/756580.htm

http://discuss.joelonsoftware.com/default.asp?joel.3.455976.20

and many more...

Actually I should mention: I really gave the ribbons a try and I still hated it - I did not give up after the first impression.

Anonymous said...

I already switched to Kingsoft Office. Chinese version of MS Office. Very fast. Doesn't have some features like embedded documents within documents etc.. but I don't use those on daily basis.

Martin Wildam said...

Never heard about that. - Had a look at it now and I really do not find a reason why one should prefer that over Open Office. And for me it is impossible to use it as there is no Linux version.

ia_mac said...

Our IT group provides desktop support for 60+employees. Our experience with Microsoft Office in the last 3 years has been frustrating. The direction the UI has taken with the ribbon bar is in our experience a disaster, and our workload for desktop support has gone up because of it. The problem is that the menu+toolbar interface that worked extremely well for both naïve and power users was replaced with the ribbon bar that doesn’t work well for either. It doesn’t work for naïve users because there are so many icons in it that it is overwhelming to them. They typically only use a few commands, so why confuse them with so many?

And it doesn’t work for power users because it takes up a significant amount of screen real estate and what used to take a single click now takes up to 5. Excel users in particular would much rather have an extra 3 rows of spreadsheet than a ribbon bar.

Hierarchical menus allow one to scan all items in all submenus to find the needed command WITH A SINGLE CLICK. The human brain can also scan menu text much more quickly than it can icons, so power users are reporting fatigue at the end of a day with the ribbon bar that they never experienced with menu+toolbar.

The toolbar could be customized for naïve users and training was a breeze. We almost never had to support power users before as they could typically quickly find what they needed. Now we regularly have to field questions about where to find the “stupid” icon to perform a seldom used task from power users two years after they started using the ribbon bar!

This is not an opinion, it is a summary of the ongoing, persistent feedback that we have gotten from our users. It does no good to tell them to "get over it". These are power users, and there is something wrong with a UI that continues to frustrate them two years after they have tried to make it work.

Like many UI issues, passionate opinions are abundant, both pro and con. It is futile to try and convert any one position to another. Fortunately, the fix for this is so obvious that I am baffled why it has not been implemented. Why not provide both Ribbons and Menus let the user decide? A simple checkbox in options would empower the user and completely resolve the issue.

Martin Wildam said...

Today I met the first person who likes the ribbons. The discussion did not come to a real result. So I think I have to accept this as something like one prefers oranges and somebody else apples.

Anyway, I hope Open Office is not going to adopt that.

Designer-monkey said...

Why not provide both Ribbons and Menus let the user decide?

Because then no-one except low-skill users would use the ribbon UI. And the ribbon designers are not having that.

HMSaph said...

Old toolbars were customizable? I did not know that.

Martin Wildam said...

Yes, Existing Toolbars could be completely changed and of course newly created ones too. Icons, Descriptions (Mouse-Over-Text), style (whether Icon or text display on the button), Order - everything.