“We need ribbons” is the new “Make it like the iPhone”. Since Microsoft introduced ribbons as part of the Office Fluent User Interface with Office 2007, this sentence is frequently uttered by clients. The rationales for this requirement range from „Microsoft has probably put a lot of thought into it“ to „Our customers are used to Office“. Ribbons seem to be perceived as a remedy for poor usability. But not every interface benefits from using ribbons.
Ribbons – What is this all about?
The ribbon is a concept that has been introduced with Microsoft Office 2007. It merges toolbars and menus into a single area at the top of an application window in order to make the commands the user needs easier to find. Therefore, they are divided into logical groups, which are arranged under various tabs. These tabs reflect user activities (such as creating tables, diagrams or the editing of the document). In addition, there is a “Home” tab, which contains the most important functions of the program. For a quick orientation, the elements that are rated as most frequently used by the software manufacturer are displayed larger than less frequently used actions.
Finally, some seldom-used tabs are only shown if necessary to minimize the complexity of the ribbon. The tab “Pictures” in Microsoft Word, for example, only appears when an image is selected by mouse click.
Pro ribbons – When they help
Ribbons offer an inexperienced user the ability to access functionality quickly and efficiently. By dividing them into activity areas, grouping functions within a tab and weighting actions by the size of the illustration, the user is supported in navigating to the desired functionality. With the assistance of icon-based visualizations of actions and preview galleries within the ribbon, functions can be understood easier without forcing a “trial and error” approach upon the user. (However, as will be argued below, this potential benefit can in fact disadvantage experienced users.)
Ribbons work best when all commands of the application refer to the entire application window and, because of the amount of commands, grouping them into tabs is reasonable. By compressing all actions into one action bar, the user has only to look for the required function at one position. But beware: If there are commands that apply only to a certain screen area, this advantage can quickly become a disadvantage!
Contra ribbons – When they are better not used
If there are multiple working areas in one application window (e.g. for processing several similar tasks in parallel), it is better to refrain from using ribbons. As it is unclear on which part of the screen the user focuses at a certain moment in time, the ribbon icons cannot be mapped to a particular context and are – in the worst case – also located far away from the current workspace. In this case, the use of the long-known toolbars, or in-place toolbars, is recommended.
As pointed out earlier, ribbons are addressed at inexperienced users. Structuring menus into action areas differs considerably from the established, familiar menu structure. Experienced users will not easily find their way in the vast number of icons and tabs. They often have to navigate large distances on the screen to reach desired functions. Speaking of “desired” – how does the manufacturer of the software know, which functions are used the most, so he can make them stand out? It quickly becomes obvious: ribbons are tailored to a particular group of people and a particular scenario and their usability-benefits stand and fall with the degree to which the theoretical assumptions of the manufacturer and the actual working practices and requirements of the user match. But if a user’s workflow diverges from the expected approach, the use of ribbons can cause more problems than benefits.
When a software benefits from maximum usage of vertical screen space, ribbons should also be avoided. Especially with the current widescreen monitor formats, the relatively large ribbon takes claims a significant part of the valuable vertical screen space.
Summary and reading tips
A ribbon is no panacea. Applied incorrectly, it causes more problems than it does bring benefits. In 2009, two years after the introduction of the new Office, the portal ExcelUser launched a survey on the new design concept by Microsoft concerning the daily work with Excel. The results were sobering. About 75% of respondents classified as very experienced and almost 60% of the average experienced users rejected the concept. On average, participants of the survey stated that their productivity has fallen by about 20% since the introduction of the ribbon.
Properly applied, ribbons offer many advantages for inexperienced users because of the structured they provide. Microsoft provides a precise definition and help regarding the appropriate usage of ribbons in a detailed article at the MSDN Library..