I'm going to be writing about some "recently ribboned" applications in the next few weeks, some better than others. Before that I have decided to set out how I feel about a variety of "already ribboned" applications and how I arrived at this conclusion: I love the ribbon!
There you go, I said it, but before you respond please read this:
These parameters will apply to my future discussions of "ribbon'ification". Hopefully they will also fend off some inevitable, but irrelevant, responses to any discussion of a graphic user experience:
- Keyboard shortcuts have no relevance; When you are talking about interaction with a Graphic User Interface other command access modes are not a factor. Yes keyboard shortcuts are faster and I use literally thousands.* If you only work in a few applications nothing will beat them. However like many users I use many applications in a day and only the basic keyboard shortcuts are common across them all.
- Loving the Ribbon doesn't mean loving all Ribbons: It's nothing more than a tabbed device to present tools and objects in a User Interface. Some applications do a better job than others but that's not a criticism of the concept, just it's implementation.
- It's not just the ribbon: The Fluent User interface includes: The Application Button, Status Bar Controls, Ribbon Components and Floating Cursor Toolbars. However, like most people, I'll mostly just refer to it all as "the ribbon".
- It's not the only User Interface, but it's the one that matters: It is the one most Windows users, lets face it most computer users, will face over the next few years especially as Windows 7 rolls out. For me Mac O/S option is not on the horizon so that debate is irrelevant too. For the majority of corporate computer users there is no choice even if you think it's better. That may change but I'm not holding my breath.
The Ribbon OR how Microsoft Office 2007 changed the [Windows] world:
The Ribbon, more accurately the "Fluent UI", arrived with Microsoft Office 2007. Ribbon shock ensued as the familiar File, Edit...Help array of menus and toolbars disappeared to be replaced with the Ribbon, Application Button and associated User Experience refinements. Most were lost at first when a familiar, if often illogical, layout of commands and tools was totally changed.
The first Fluent UI application I used was the one that started it all. Microsoft Office 2007 arrived and, yes, at times I got lost and cursed the new User Interface. It's strange but the disappearance of the File menu and replacement with the Application Button seemed to be more of a struggle than the ribbon. Yes, I spent some time getting used to a new work-flow based arrangement of tools but once over that hump I have found it becomes more natural.
MindManager, the best Ribbon so far:
Not long after Office MindManager 7 arrived. Another familiar UI was replaced by something totally new. Trigger another round of "ribbfusion" (confusion induced by a ribbon changes) while you abandon old habits and adapt to the new. I grew to like it and think Mindjet's MindManager Ribbon is the best I've encountered to date, even better than Microsoft's! I suspect this is because MindManager is a visual product and the ribbon presents visual controls far better than menu/toolbars ever could. Add to that MindManager's use of colour and nice tab layout and you have a dramatic improvement over it's toolbar'ed predecessors.
Snagit: Their Ribbon becomes Fluent:
Snagit 9 arrived with half of the Fluent UI. Snagit 9.0 was ribboned but the full experience arrived when 9.1 added context sensitive cursor toolbars and live preview for visual effects. It showed what a difference these, non-ribbon, items make to the Fluent UI.
AutoCAD 2009: Autodesk's first Ribbon rocks the AutoCAD world
The AutoCAD Ribbon was as controversial as any but came with an out clause. Unlike Microsoft Office, MindManager and Snagit you had a choice between the old & new User Interface. Indeed many AutoCAD verticals imposed this choice by largely ignoring the ribbon and loading traditional toolbars. For those that chose to use it the AutoCAD Ribbon offered many features familiar from other Fluent Applications with one major addition: Customisation.
It's long been a strength, to some a curse, that AutoCAD allowed extensive customisation of it's User Interface. Unlike many other applications AutoCAD users often took advantage of this so the ribbon had to accommodate it. Unlike other ribbon applications AutoCAD 2009 also echoed the legacy menu structure within it's application button hosted Menu Browser. A mixture of old and new User Interface was probably a technical and commercial requirement for Autodesk but I suspect created more problems than it solved. A clean break does inflict more migration pain, but in the end it's an easier process.
What I like about the Ribbon:
I own Office 2007 but still use Office 2003 at work. This means, sadly, I have a direct daily comparison between old & new. As "ribbon shock" has abated I've grown to hate the old Menu/Toolbar UI as much as I love the Ribbon. Here are some of the reasons why:
It attempts to be task based and coordinated: Admittedly there is endless potential for debate in that line. I do find some applications do a better job of arranging the tools to suit work-flow,or maybe my work-flow just happens to match them better?
Before you howl about the old applications being better consider the task not the tools. Say you are In Word and want to change the page orientation. In the old Office it seems logical that it might be on the Format menu, but it's not there. You'll actually find it on File > Page Set-up which seems odd when page orientation is per section/page, not per file. In 2007 it's on the Page Layout" tab along with other page set-up controls which makes more sense. In that case the work-flow is better as the ribbon allows access to different controls for the task at hand. In other cases tool relationships could make the ribbon less efficient but that's down to tab arrangement and tool placement.
Cursor Tools: The hover toolbars in Office, and Snagit, place context sensitive tools at the work-face. This removes the need to trek to the ribbon for minor changes. It becomes the tool-box for major tasks with the cursor toolbars acting as your tool-belt, bringing the essentials to the work but not getting in the way.
Right Click > for comfort. If the hover annoys a right click brings up the same object toolbar options along with the traditional task oriented menu. The Fluent UI doesn't abandon these menu/toolbar elements but does relegate them to short task specific applications. That 20 item menu, 15 with flyout sub-menus is history!
Live Preview: This is one part of Fluent that is often not even thought of as a User Interface function. However it does significantly enhance the User Experience. Applying changes only to undo them when the implications are realised is eliminated. This could be done pre-ribbon but the integration of style galleries and tools along with preview is a significant advantage of the ribbon.
It's constrained but at least it behaves: Most ribbons are constrained into the top section of the application window. Their stable nature avoids weird start-up conditions like the toolbar scramble. The example shows PowerPoint but I have several applications from multple vendors which occasionally don't retain previous layout settings. With the Ribbon, and no toolbars, at least there is no random scramble.
Not all ribbons are created equal, some do a better job than others
Often it's not about the ribbon, it's the choices made in the placement and design of tools
The combinations of tools, galleries and other controls allow much more flexiblity in design.
Task based UI have the potential to be more engaging if done well, more enraging if they are wrong.
Overall I think the Fluent UI represents a significant step forward in User Experience design. To sum it up in a line:
I love a good ribbon!
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As a marketing blogger, I get asked a lot, "What is the future of marketing?"
I always answer the same: "The Blue Monster".
What's The Blue Monster?
A Blue Monster is a Social Object that articulates a Purpose-Idea.
What's a Social Object? What's a Purpose-Idea?
Sit yourself down, pour yourself another glass of whisky. This might take a while to explain...
* From 5/24/2005 to 2/19/2009 (1367 days) keyboard shortcuts were responsible for manupulating/creating about 1/2 the content typed on this machine!
Total user Keystrokes typed including ActiveWords: 409,825
Total Keystrokes substituted by ActiveWords less ActiveWords typed: 404,019
Total Content Entered: 813,844
Percent of Total Content saved by ActiveWords that substitute and transform text: 49.64%