Playing games with the Office user interface

Summary:I'll admit it; I actually like the ribbon in Office. But I'm disappointed that my high score so far is only 66…For years we scolded Microsoft for the way features were arranged in Office.

I'll admit it; I actually like the ribbon in Office. But I'm disappointed that my high score so far is only 66…

For years we scolded Microsoft for the way features were arranged in Office. I've been using Word since Word 5.5 for the Mac, back in the 80s, which had optional short menus to hide the overwhelming mass of features and by about 1996 Word for Windows had just about caught up - but the new features were shoehorned in every which way, crammed into tabs and dialog boxes they had only the vaguest connection with. For a while I made a fair amount of my living from writing articles explaining where the mail merge tools were hidden and what Vulcan death grip key combination you needed to switch the paragraph you’d just written with the Caps Lock key on back to lower case without retyping it . With the ribbon, the Office team did what I'd been begging them to do - they took the time to create a logical organisation for all the features in each application.

With Office 2010, you just can't complain about the ribbon any more. Don’t like the fact that the mail merge tools are in the logical place on the Share tab? Move them. Make your own custom tab (mine is called Oh My Word!). Want to have half of the shapes and not the other half? Put them on a custom tab. Want to change case? The case drop-down is right on the Home tab. End of argument; the toolbars and menus aren't coming back and they don't need to. And if you think it's still too confusing and you are never going to learn where things are or how Word's features work, relax and play a game.

Chris Pratley, the man behind the OneNote note-taking software that's been the hidden gem in Office for the last five or six years, moved over to the Office Labs a couple of years ago and this week we found out what he's been working on. The first thing is a training game called Ribbon Hero where you gain points for using features on the ribbon in the Office apps. You can play the challenges as they come or pick through the list to see what looks useful; you've always been able to freeze the top row of an Excel spreadsheet so it stays on screen as you scroll down but once upon a time it meant dragging and sizing panes with handles - now it's one tickbox on the View tab and that earns you 6 points in Ribbon Hero and saves you five minutes the next time you have a long spreadsheet to make sense of. The Office Labs team asked the Xbox Live team to help them design a system that would get people coming back. Making it a game (you can share your score on Facebook) and it's fun as well as useful - and you can't say that about training very often. And of course the Office Offline Webcomic had a good take on it.

One word of warning; you can't get a high score unless you play with the free beta of Office 2010, because it covers new features. And you'll have to download the VSTO Office tool when the Ribbon Hero installation prompts you, and then go back and restart the Ribbon Hero setup; it would be nice if that had been a seamless installation. Mary

Topics: Windows


Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state 30KW HF radio transmitter, writing electromagnetic modelling software for railguns, and t... Full Bio


Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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