In my best Sam Kinison voice, “ah ahhh ahhhhhhhhhh!!!!” I can’t take it anymore. I am re-installing Office 2003 and forgetting about Office 2007. Why? It’s the ribbon man! For all of the usability design, I find it unusable. No offense to Jensen Harris or Microsoft, but for me, the consumer of the product, and after trying it for over a year, I just can't get used to it.
First, full disclosure, I am not a “usability designer” or a Microsoft “hater." In fact, I have been making a living as a software architect/programmer type on the Microsoft stack since 1991 and have been fairly happy with the platform (I love VS2008!) – except for the ribbon. But I digress.
The “ribbon.” Jensen says one of the reasons it was invented was because people could not find the new features when they were added to the product. Then he goes on to say that there are over 250 menu items and over 30 toolbars in Word 2003, which resulted in this satirical view:
Now, fair enough, but I would suggest that if a “word processing” application has +250 menu items and over 30 toolbars, then “Toto, we're not in Kansas Anymore." Meaning, this is no longer a word processing application.
Honestly, Word should have been “refactored” into perhaps multiple products or features split into a desktop publishing application or a whole other suite of applications. But instead, the UX team went through an honorable and noble design process of solving the wrong problem. Kudos to you Jensen, but I just can’t do it anymore. Every time I look at the ribbon, my brain freezes - I have to think, which means bad usability design.
Why? It boils down to simple math. When I see the Word 2003 menu, I see this:
Ok, I see 9 “objects.” Notice no toolbars. That’s right, simple is better… right? Ok when I get crazy, and add a toolbar, I see:
Even then, it is 19 objects on the toolbar and another 9 objects for the menus. But what do I really use?
Yah, that’s right 13 objects in total! That’s it. The bullets, numbering and indent/outdent are merely conveniences for me. Note one complaint already is that these are 2 separate toolbars and there is no way for me to put them on one row, even though there is lots of horizontal space, I am forced to use up two vertical rows. That ain't usability.
Oh yeah, not full menus on the pull down – who designed that? Yes, I know what you thought, and I know the "fix", but honestly, it does not work. Give me the full menu every time so I do not have to click twice. In my mind, usability is all about minimizing the choices a user has to make and minimizing the number of mouse clicks to make those choices. If you have too many choices, maybe you are trying to solve the wrong problem?
Here is my default Word 2007 "Ribbon":
There are, count them, over 60 possible choices or selections to make. And that is the problem. Too many visible choices! My poor brain needs to parse and process each item to see if it matches what I want to do. Whereas before, I had a pretty good idea that in the one of the 9 menus in Word 2003, I would be able to locate and narrow down the “decision tree” to find what I am looking for. In fact, I got really good at in 2003 and did not have to "think" about it. And that's the point of good usability design - no think time. In Word 2007 I have 5 times as many visible choices per "ribbon" x 8 menus, which means exposing ~480 visible objects to the user, which is way too many! In my mind, this is a classic case of solving the wrong problem – i.e. if a “word processor” has 480 objects, commands, menu items, whatever the heck you want to call it, give it a name, then it is no longer, by far, a word processing application. Something is really wrong here.
Oh and some hidden UI gems. When I first fired up Word 2007, I was trying desperately to find the “options” menu item which has always been Tools/Options, for like 10 years its been there - if it ain't broke... After several minutes of hunting, I had to ask one of my co-workers, where the heck is the Options option? It is hidden at the bottom of the "magic" Microsoft Office Button. I say magic because a) who knew it was a button? and b) why the heck is it there? I might as well be playing a pinball game for all the pretty widgets!
Funny that there is a “Locations of Word 2003 commands in Word 2007” article... What does that say about the user experience? Ok, I will admit to being totally programmed by the “File” menu approach, but so is the rest of the world and the mass majority of applications in the world (meaning everything but Office 2007) also operates that way, so what up? As mentioned before, I believe the wrong problem is being solved.
As a related aside, it took me forever to find on the IE7 toolbar where the “find on this page” menu item was. Have a look at the screenshot below. Where would you look?
My first instinct (decision) was to look under the “Page” menu/toolbar for "find on this page" menu item:
Nope, not there. Other related page menu items are there, but not my find on this page menu item. So then of course I looked under each menu, in random desperation, and still no go. WTH? I had to search on the internet to find the “find on this page” menu item and lo and behold it is hidden away here:
Again, I feel the wrong problem is being solved here. We have a menu called Page and if you wanted to find something on the “Page” you would look under the “Page” menu, yes? I know I live and breathe software for a living, but I just don’t get how this is usable. Again, I am not trying to pick on MS, but as someone that uses MS tools daily, there are items that come up that defy any sort of logic. And that can be said for any software products and services company.
What’s my point? While there is a lot of hype around usability and the user experience, it does no good to be solving the wrong the problem. Rule #1 in software development, regardless if it is usability or not, make sure the right problem is being solved. And if the software industry moves towards adopting the "ribbon" as a standard user experience widget, I think I will take early retirement!