Microsoft Office Ribbon Analysis

Bookmark: Introduction - Jan 2007
Bookmark: My Ribbon Review - Apr 2007
Bookmark: Spectacular Sales - Jan 2008
Bookmark: Negative Feedback - Jul 2009
Bookmark: Pimped Up GUI - Dec 2007

Introduction to the Office Ribbon - Jan 2007

Microsoft have completely changed the user interface in Office 2007. The new user interface is called the ‘Ribbon’, and it replaces all the menus and toolbars in previous versions of Office.

I myself haven't yet tried the new ribbon, but large numbers of beta users have already provided lots of feedback, and, reading the press, I get the impression it's generally neutral to positive.

An example of a very positive review is below:

My experience has been that Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best.

Here is a more mixed review:

Even though the many aspects of the Ribbon present a significant change for experienced Office users, the advantages of the new user interface far outweigh the retraining this new feature will entail. I was initially very skeptical about this, but the Ribbon offers so many visual cues and smart feature improvements that I think experienced Office users will not have much difficulty adapting to it. ...But... Why couldn’t Microsoft leave at least a semblance of the old menu system in Office 2007 to help people who have extensive classic-menu muscle memory? ... It seems to me that Microsoft may have drunk its own Kool-Aid a bit too much when it decided to drop entirely the "legacy" classic menu system. It might have been better to make that an option that some of us could turn back on...

With no option to revert to 'classic menus' Microsoft are gambling on users quickly learning to love the new menu system. If users were to react to the Office 2007 Ribbon in the same way as they did to the now dead Office Assistant, Microsoft would find itself in a very hot water.

Kingsley Joseph writes:

Short and sweet, the Ribbon and new UI in Microsoft Office 2007 is the ballsiest new feature in the history of computer software... To clarify the point: Microsoft Office is a bigger business than most of us probably realize. Office generated $11.5 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2005, and it'll exceed that in the current calendar year. But conservatively, you're talking about a billion dollars a month.

Now, most of us who like to prognosticate and pontificate about software like to say things like "It'd be easy to just..." or "It's trivial to add..." but the thing is, most of us aren't betting our entire careers on the little tweaks and changes we'd like to make to our productivity applications. Try making a mistake that jeopardizes a business that makes $250 million a week...

Companies as large as Microsoft don't take bet-the-company style risks. What's more, the market for third-party applications on top of Office is bigger than most stand-alone software companies. There's a real risk of jeopardizing those line-of-business customizations that most large organizations use alongside Office.

Is Microsoft right to be taking this kind of risk? Hold on, there is another angle...

By making Office 2007 significantly different from Office XP upgrade sales should be much higher. It’s harder and harder to add useful new features to Word, so concentrating on user friendliness and aesthetic design makes a lot of sense. Instead of being just another upgrade, there is now an enormous difference between the old and new versions.

"One of the biggest challenges... is to fight that perception that old versions of software are good enough... Our business model of course allows you to keep using Office 2003 - the software doesn't really expire, " said Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Business Division.

In addition to the upgrade benefits, after having the market all to itself for many years Microsoft is now facing real competition for the first time. No one can compete with Microsoft by building better desktop applications, so now competitors give away ‘good enough’ versions for free. Sun Microsystems turned it’s unsuccessful Star Office into the free Open Office, and maintains it with a 100 strong team of paid software engineers and a number of volunteer programmers (today Office runs at about 400m users worldwide and Open Office is said to have perhaps as many as 40m users).

Microsoft are allowing other vendors to use the Ribbon for free subject to a no-compete with Office clause….

The [Ribbon] license is available for applications on any platform, except for applications that compete directly with the five Office applications that currently have the new UI (Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access).

The golden scenario Microsoft will be hoping for is to see widespread adoption of new menu systems in other applications. By enormously increasing the complexity of windows GUIs it will be harder for open source to remain ‘good enough’ to compete with commercial software.

In summary, the radical new Ribbon GUI is not just about improving Office 2007 usability. It's also about giving users a reason to upgrade and differentiating their product from similar looking competitors.

The cynics will say that the new interface is actually worse, that Microsoft's top scientific brains on the Office team fought against the bozos in the marketing department who wanted the ribbon to drive sales, and the management sided with marketing wickedly inflicting an injustice on their customers in a state of full consciousness for the sake of profit.

The optimists will say Microsoft’s interface R&D has paid off with an innovative and exciting new GUI, and Microsoft is bravely and boldly backing it, and there is no conflict between truth/justice/science and profit.

If the Ribbon fails it very much calls into question Microsoft’s judgment. Feedback looks OK but Microsoft’s GUI innovation record is littered with failed attempts to jazz up and dumb down their products. For example, Office Assistant was a flop, Adaptive Menus, Web Folders and file extension hiding were all bad ideas, and experienced users immediately disable them.

The success or failure of the new Office 2007 Ribbon will have a large and long term impact on moral, image and revenue at Microsoft. Investors in Microsoft should be on tender hooks…

Post Script:

What's the worst case? Suppose the ultra-cynical are right and a lot of serious users hate the ribbon and start complaining that all Microsoft are doing is messing about making everyone's life worse to boost their sales. Ie in the same sort of way that food companies make more money by chasing the weak and feckless majority instead of the disciplined and educated few, so Microsoft is turning away from the product excellence power users care about and pursuing the majority with bags of colourful sweets.

In such a case Microsoft won't escape as easily as fashion food and entertainment companies, because their products actually have to work and do real things. In other words, whereas people can absorb themselves in childish and immoral liberal arts cultural forces for a very long time without realising how tragic their life has become, as you gradually destroy something people need to use to do some technical work with, you start making them mad at you quite quickly. For example, think about the difference between video games and spreadsheets. If the video games industry becomes corrupted the kids will go on getting worse and worse for a long time, enjoying Punch and Judy puppet shows when they are young and ultra-violence and ultra-porn as they grow older. But if the spreadsheet market becomes corrupted, it self-rights because people find themselves becoming less productive, and understand the source of their loss of creativity, and the more advanced the user the faster he notices, so you get an elite led revolution against the status quo.

Now lawyers and regulators today are not good at ethical philosophy, but what we are now hypothetically considering is an enormous abuse of a monopoly position which any wise statesman would want to address, not to mention the damage it would do to the American economy given the vital importance of the PC industry. Thus Microsoft could find itself at the forefront of the crisis of neoliberalism, with regulators declaring thermo nuclear war upon it, insisting on a return to  excellence and craft. This war would be much bigger than simply forcing Microsoft to give users a way to change browsers easily, what we are saying is that Microsoft as it stands is not fit and proper to run such an important part of the economy, and can not be allowed to control the design of its own products.

My Ribbon Review - Apr 2007

Resources: Microsoft articles about the Office 2007 Ribbon

My first shock came looking for the new edit, replace menu in Excel – I couldn’t actually find it and was forced to search for it on the internet! By changing all the menu titles and menu contents, the Ribbon renders all those years of experience with Windows Applications and Office Applications somewhat useless. If this was shareware I would uninstall immediately, but coming as it did from Microsoft, I persevered.

The Ribbon also lays menu items out by popularity rather than by logical connection. For example, I read a Microsoft article about watermarks in Word saying that research shows it is a feature people love when they discover it, but which they rarely know exists. So the developers gave it a prominent place in the new Ribbon, whereas with the old logical menu structure they were limited to put it in the format, then background, then watermark submenu. So accidentally finding watermarks is now easier than before, but I found deliberately finding the edit replace menu is that much harder! (but this watermark talk sounds like kool-aid to me. how many people really need watermarks? do they mean people enjoyed playing with it or actually using it? there is a huge difference between making products fun and making products work)

In fact the edit replace menu now appears on the far right of the ‘home’ menu, after the font name, size, color, alignment etc options. Clearly edit, replace is popular, hence it’s place on the first home menu - but for the majority, it’s less popular than changing font styles in Excel - hence it’s place on the far right of the home menu.

Here is a screen shot of the new edit, replace menu in the Excel 2007

This philosophy of organizing menus by popularity instead of by logical connection may appeal to novice users, but it aggravates me as a power user. It reminds me of the Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer 7 menus which seem designed to look good and do a few things easily, but actually end up making life much harder for the power user. For me placing edit, replace to the very far right after the font styles is also aggravating. As a financial model builder I don’t think I have ever changed the typeface, but I use edit replace all the time. I also immediately disliked the way precious screen space on the eye catching far left is taken up with Cut & Paste icons. Novice users may like this but power users know it’s much faster to press Ctrl-C and Ctrl-X and will probably never ever click these buttons. Superfluous sub menu items you never use, such as copy & paste in the edit menu, aren't in the slightest bit aggravating; but pointless ribbon items staring you in the face all day long gobbling up your screen space are extremely annoying.

The size of the Ribbon and the Excel 2007 fonts in general also annoys me. I have four 1600x1200 monitors on my desk at work but screen space is still very precious to me. Unlike previous version of Office it’s now impossible to run Excel in a small window – first the ribbon starts compressing menu items, and then it simply disappears.

After a few weeks I abandoned Excel 2007 and the Ribbon. As a power user totally in touch with my product the only way the new Ribbon can really make me more productive is to reduce the number of clicks and mouse movements it takes for me to select the feature I want. The ribbon doesn’t do this at all – it increases clicks and mouse moves but supposedly makes it easier to discover new things. That, in a nutshell, is its raison d'être.

Even if, as claimed, the Ribbon brings productivity improvements to the novice user, I believe that this comes at the expense of the power user. Microsoft’s claims that the Ribbon will allow them to pack in more features without overwhelming the user looks extremely dubious to me – I think highly logical multi level menus offer much greater scope for complexity.

Annoying the power user is dangerous because although they represent only a small market share, the endorsement of the power user contributes to sales further down the line. For example, by maintaining its reputation as the ultimate photo editor used by all professionals, Adobe Photoshop picks up sales from less sophisticated users who would be in truth better served by a cheaper and easier to use package. Also the power users are the ones most likely to lead any move Open Source, which is the greatest threat to Office.

Finally, a small point, but changing the file format at the same time as introducing the ribbon makes it only harder for corporates to make a gradual transition to the controversial Ribbon. Office 2007 feels generally rushed and lacking attention to detail. Only after the support forums were inundated with help requests did Microsoft release various Ribbon learning tools and better help files - a mistake that smacks of either enormous incompetence or arrogance.

Office 2007 Sales Are Nothing Short of Spectacular - Jan 2008


For now, Office 2007 sales are nothing short of spectacular.... For the first 10 full months in the market, Office 2007 had a 137.4 percent increase in unit volume and a 118 percent increase in dollar volume compared to Office 2003... Office 2007's success is much bigger than retail. According to a CDW study published this week, by early November, 24 percent of enterprises had already deployed Office 2007.

So far it's a storming success - much to my surprise! Yet the sale price has been drastically cut for home users. Also in the longer term upgrade sales are less important than the number of people switching to Open Office. It would be interesting to know if Open Office market share is increasing - especially in education, government and business. In other words, behind these great sales how many ribbon hating customers have permanently abandoned Office? Also, how are corporate upgrades compared to non commercial sales?

Negative Customer Feedback - Jul 2009

Taking a look at here is the feedback on Office 2007 Pro two and a half years after release:

The three most popular reviews begin:

It is said that Microsoft have begun to fight back against negative reviews by getting MVPs to plant positive reviews.

At ExcelUser I found this:

All hugely negative stuff.

The only major product to have adopted the Ribbon is AutoDesk's AutoCad. AudoCad users have the option of switching the Ribbon off and reverting to a classic mode with menus. AutoDesk's CIP statistics collected anonymously from customers who allow usage data to be sent to be sent back to the software vendor show that approximately 50% of customers do turn their Ribbon off. In addition AutoCad's forums show overwhelming negative feedback toward the Ribbon interface.

All in all it looks as if Microsoft have made a mistake of shocking proportions.

Pimped Up GUI - Oct 2007

At one time Winamp was a popular shareware media player, and many users enjoyed 'pimping up' Winamp with fancy looking 'skins'. In truth these skins only made the product harder to use, but people enjoyed them, and a media player is such a simple program it hardly mattered anyway. After loosing a little market share Microsoft began rebuilding its media player and incorporating these ideas. Today, supposedly sexy looking but impossible to use GUI design is widespread, perhaps the worst example I have seen is the unusable and downmarket Motorola Phone Tools.

Motorola Phone Tools- a 'Pimped Up' but impossible to use GUI

IE7 - Where are the menus? Is it really easy to use, or just "prettier"?

Vista Photo Gallery - Notice the excessive waste of vertical space caused by the two command bars. This photo does not show it, but often times an ugly 'Make a Video' button appears when you view photos.

I believe Microsoft is making a huge mistake embracing these new fangled designs. Making the Office Interface a little slicker and better looking will help sales, but it must not be allowed to jeopardise the entire product, doing so turns Microsoft from a benevolent monopolist into a tyranny, with appalling long term consequences not just for the soul of the company but for its long term commercial viability because hubris inevitably turns to nemesis. Serious software for serous corporate users requires a serious, familiar, powerful and logical interface. Once Microsoft GUI design was unbeatable, today they are increasingly producing flashy dumbed down designs which ultimately fail both to be easy to be use and to be stylish. Childish geeky self interest instead of rational businesslike focus has ruined a once great company. With no obvious competitor Microsoft's irresponsibility has inflicted a bitter legacy on the world. How can Microsoft turn around? They need a new management culture - think elite British intellectual and passionate German craftsman and detached Japanese scientist - not American sales and marketing.