Mix08: Story of the Ribbon

I attended another Microsoft design presentation about the design of the Office 2007 Ribbon that has replaced the menus and toolbars of the traditional apps.  Presented by Jensen Harris, it was a refreshingly self-deprecating look at the history of the Office UI and the design goals and methods that led to the ribbon.  His presentation style was beautiful, and it had great musical cues attached to each major point.

Fundamentally, the ribbon came about because with each successive release of Office, more functions were added to more menus, more toolbars, and more task panes.  I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but by Office 2003, there were something like 35 toolbars, 18 task panes, and 1500 functions in Word.  The old menu/toolbar paradigm had crumbled under this.  I’ve only been using Office 2007 for a few months, and I struggle to find a few functions that I used to know where to find, but I have a new appreciation for the challenge behind this design – and I think I’ll get used to it.


  • “Whenever UI designers don’t know what to do… invent a new rectangle!” Referring primarily to the addition of task panes to office a number of years ago.
  • Results-Oriented Design: rather than naming a function, show the result of the choice, live and non-destructively, before committing to the choice.
  • Biggest problem with Office prior to 2007, based on research data: “The sense of mastery was gone.”  Users were no longer masters of the software.
  • The office team gets HUGE amounts of data from the opt-in user experience improvement program.  He showed a few months of data where the most-used function (paste) was used over 14 million times by people in the program.  The least used function (convert rectangle object to lightening bolt) was only used 3 times in that same period.  All this data was used in very interesting ways to drive choices in the new UI.
  • Design tenets must be religion.  Everyone who touches the product must truly believe in the tenets, or the designs will stray.  My favorite tenet for Office 2007: “Consistent but not homogenous.”  Consistency is important, but not to the detriment of each product’s own personality.
  • Longitudinal usability studies where the most important feedback the team got on their design.  The first couple hours of use of a new design provides interesting feedback, but data on immersive, extensive, and expert use over a few months of intense study was invaluable.
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