The Limits of the Ribbon Revolution
The Microsoft Office Ribbon is really starting to take off. I’ve seen it in three applications in the past two days: a mindmapping program (I’m under embargo so can’t say which one), SmartDraw 2007, and even something like Mindomo (tenminut.es review here), an online mindmapping program. Here is a bunch of other programs using the Ribbon: Essential Studio, Radius, SandRibbon, etc.
I was positive about the ribbon in a recent WSJ.com column (subscription only) which has led to death threats and old friends no longer talking to me. But I felt, and still feel, the ribbon is a big step forward in interface design. But I’m not sure that it will last. Here’s why.
Limits: The ribbon only makes sense for some programs. But which? The obvious distinction is between navigation and creativity/productivity. A browser doesn’t make sense, for example. But why not something like Visio? I have to assume it’s not laziness or lack of time that has meant that quite a few programs in the Office 2007 stable don’t actually use the ribbon (besides Visio, Outlook and Publisher don’t) so presumably it was decided the ribbon didn’t suit those programs. So we’re stuck now with two competing interface approaches — menus and ribbons. Is that making things simpler?
Licensing: Microsoft will only license it to non-competing programs. So, don’t expect to see it in all programs that might most benefit from it. Instead, expect to see OpenOffice et al develop something like a ribbon which is similar enough to look, well, similar, but not similar enough to flatten the learning curve. It may already have happened, since one or two of the ribbons I’ve seen don’t exactly feel very similar to Microsoft’s design. (How many of these Ribbon look alikes are actually licensees?)
Poor design: The ribbon is designed, among other things, to increase the amount of space available for you to do stuff. Some programmers don’t seem to get this: the new SmartDraw, for example, has no way I can see of minimizing the Ribbon, severely reducing the amount of space to actually draw in. Ditto with Mindomo. (And as several readers of the column pointed out, why can’t we move the Ribbon around the screen or customize it? What is this? 1992?)
Standards: The ribbon is supposed to be intuitive, and it is. Once you get it, there are very few commands that are elusive. The commands are grouped together well — more intuitively than the old menu system. But inevitably, as more programs adopt the ribbon approach users will get confused and mis-remember placement of functions. Mindomo, for example, doesn’t really follow the logic of other ribbon interfaces (‘Topic’ is the second ribbon name, and ‘Task Info’ the third. No logic for me there, and I’m a seasoned mindmapper.) SmartDraw has just one main ribbon and then smaller sub-ribbons on the right which makes some sense but requires a whole new attitude, not to mention weird mouse movements to get there:
Opting out: The big complaint about the Ribbon Revolution is that there’s no opting out of it. In none of the programs I have looked at is there a way to say “Ribbon? No thanks, give me back my menus. It took me 15 years to learn them and I want to stick with them.” I think this is a mistake not to give people that option.
I’m not saying the Ribbon is a bad idea. I think it’s great in Word and Excel. But it’s already beginning to feel that it should have been more flexible in its design. If Microsoft is serious about making this the new user interface, then it needs to take a long hard look at how it’s used beyond the narrow Office cubicle cluster.