Tie An Aqua Ribbon Round the Old Toolbar

I have to admit that I have been Microsoft hating just a little more than I would like lately, so I thought I would balance the karma with a post about something Microsoft is currently working on that intrigues me.

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This is a picture of the Ribbon in MS Office 2007 (yoinked from Jensen Harris’ great journal about the evolution of the MS Office interface and all of the work that goes into a project like this). Basically, it takes the place of the complicated system of menus, submenus, and toolbars Office has been using for the last decade or so.

Why does this intrigue me so?

ribbon03-1First of all, the Ribbon reminds me of the Inspector found in Pages and Keynote (probably inherited from their NeXT ancestors), which are two of my favorite applications. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying Microsoft is copying Apple with the Ribbon. I think the manners of implementation are different enough to be considered distinct concepts. However, despite its shortcomings, I like the iWork Inspector, and I find myself drawn to the Ribbon in Office 2007 because of the noted similarity.

Additionally, the Ribbon seems like an effort on the behalf of Microsoft to demystify Office to a certain extent. How often have you or someone you’ve worked grown frustrated with PowerPoint, Excel, or Word because feature XYZ is so buried in a sea of menus and dialog boxes that a strategy guide is needed to traverse the apparent labyrinth? I know I have. With the Ribbon, more features are accessible at the highest level of interface – right in front of your face.

Unfortunately, the Office Ribbon still contains some of Microsoft’s signature clutter:

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I mean, really, where do you even begin with this mess? How can this be streamlined and simplified without losing functionality and meaningfulness? Right now, this Write Ribbon from MS Word 2007 is an aesthetic nightmare. In all respect, though, pretty much any setting you need for formatting text is very accessible. In direct contrast, the default toolbar for Pages is very unobtrusive, but a user (who has not found the Inspector) may be left wondering how to do so much as make his/her text bold or change the font size.

Where is the happy medium? Where does usability meet simplicity, and how can feature- richness be communicated without visual clutter? Can the ideas of the iWork Inspector, the Office 2007 Ribbon, and the simplicity of an Apple toolbar be merged? To me, the Ribbon is the most interesting interface element to come out of Redmond in years, and I am interested in seeing how it evolves as Office 2007 nears completion.

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