Oh the horror! Why is Microsoft pushing the hated Windows Ribbon for Office:Mac?

Oh the horror! Why is Microsoft pushing the hated Windows Ribbon for Office:Mac?

Summary: Last month, the Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit announced Office:Mac 2011 and posted some screen shots of its future user interface. I finally got around to looking at them. Sorry to say, the productivity-killing Ribbon introduced with Office 2007 on Windows will make its way to the Mac. Sigh. But the silver lining is that we will get to keep our menus.


Last month, the Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit announced Office:Mac 2011 and posted some screen shots of its future user interface. I finally got around to looking at them. Sorry to say, the productivity-killing Ribbon introduced with Office 2007 on Windows will make its way to the Mac. Sigh. But the silver lining is that we will get to keep our menus.

Office:Mac, like a number of other recent Mac OS X programs and especially Web-based apps, are making trade-offs in their application interfaces that ding power users and kowtow to the entry-level part of the market.

On the Mac Mojo blog, Han-Yi Shaw, the Macintosh Business Unit's lead program manager, put a good Mac face on the Office:Mac 2011 introduction of the Ribbon, differentiating the Mac version from its Windows counterparts.

It's called the “Office for Mac ribbon”, or as we refer to it internally, “MacRibbon”. The “Mac” part tells you that it was designed specifically for the Mac, with all of the recognizable attributes that Mac users have come to love; the “Ribbon” part signifies the shared lineage with the ribbon seen in Office 2007 and now Office 2010 for Windows.

What? So, the concept is that you say, "potato" and I say, "nobody likes the Ribbon, nobody, unless they work at Microsoft or have taken a deep pull on the draught prepared in the halls of Redmond for the brave heroes, aka the enterprise customers who have no alternative to using Office because Office is the standard and we all use Office here." What does it matter that it's called a Mac Ribbon because it's running on the Mac? It's still the Ribbon.

However, it was the very same Mac user community who expected a first-class ribbon implementation, who were at the same time crystal clear in their message: deliver a ribbon interface that’s built upon, not at the expensive of, the Mac user interface and native Mac OS X platform technologies. And as we at MacBU are Mac users ourselves, we empathized with this unequivocal request coming from our user community. Hence, the MacRibbon was born.

It began from user feedback -- and every step of the way -- we listened, iterated, and listened some more. And after two years of development -- and having worked closely with our customers -- we think we’ve landed in a happy place with the Office for Mac ribbon. And with that, here comes the exciting part: What is the Office for Mac ribbon?

Now, it is difficult for this longtime Mac user to believe that any Mac user (not on the Microsoft payroll) requested a first-class or even a second-class ribbon interface. While I am loath to doubt the word of Han-Yi Shaw, with whom I have had no word about this matter, perhaps we may infer that Microsoft bean-counters suggested that since the company owns the Ribbon interface and spent so much time and effort on it, naturally, all of its customers should gain the benefit of it, even on the Macintosh platform. And we should be happy for it.

Then again, out of the millions of Mac users, the ones who love the Ribbon would gravitate to Redmond or San Jose where the next version of Office:Mac is under development. Some of them, for example, newcomers to the Mac with fresh experience of Windows Office, might want the rest of us to share their pain.

Nadyne Richmond, a user experience researcher at Microsoft, explained this further on her blog Go ahead, Mac my day.  She says it's an evolution from the Elements Gallery in Mac:Office 2008. And she explained that Office will remain a "good" Mac program, letting users see its menubar.

As we began our work on Office:Mac 2011, we had to make decisions about what the next generation of the Elements Gallery should look like. We made some great strides forward in improving discoverability, but there were still some improvements to be made. As we looked at our colleagues on the Windows Office team and considered what they had learned through their Ribbon work, we decided that we could do the Ribbon in a Mac way that works for our users.

Our single most important decision for the MacRibbon is that we're still going to be a good Mac citizen. Our menus, not to mention the standard toolbar, stay. We knew that one concern that our users have is the availability of vertical screen real estate. As such, we quickly made the decision that our MacRibbon should be collapsible. If you're using the MacRibbon, then you've got easy access to our features; if you're not, then you can collapse it to get it out of your way. If you're feeling particularly minimalistic, you can collapse the standard toolbar too, leaving you with every pixel on your screen below the menu bar to dedicate to your document.

We can all be glad that Mac users will still familiar access to tools via the menubar. However, even now, years after the introduction of Office 2007, I meet users who can't find the controls and tools that they need with the Ribbon.

How bad is it? There's a game called Ribbon Hero that is supposed to teach the interface. Here's a post this week from Microsoft's own Partners in Learning Network resource site:

When you install Ribbon Hero, it appears as an add-in inside Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and you get an icon for it – where else? – on The Ribbon. When  you click on the icon, you’re offered your first set of challenges, which you can attempt to complete with or without the helpful hints.

"Don't hate the Ribbon, be a Ribbon hero!" To a longtime Mac user, this describes perfectly all over the Microsoft and Windows mindset and user experience. It's the interface that eventually you will love to hate.

Another "advantage" of the Ribbon, according to Shaw, is how it gets rid of those nasty tool palettes.

And given that the Office for Mac ribbon is nicely anchored inside the application window, adjacent to the standard toolbar, gone are the days when you had to position and reposition the Formatting Palette to prevent it from covering your document contents or falling off the screen as it grows and shrinks during normal usage. The Office for Mac ribbon solves the common user complaint about “I like the Formatting Palette, but it can really get in the way” -- and users who tested the Office for Mac ribbon overwhelmingly favored it.

This is part of an annoying trend over the past couple of years in the Mac community: the use of mono-screen applications instead of the longstanding use on the Mac of a "single document interface" (SDI) and floating tools in palettes.

In the SDI, the menubar and tools are always available on the top of the screen or on palettes, respectively. Each document has its own window.

Microsoft instead chose a multiple document interface (MDI) for Windows that presents a parent window containing both tools and multiple documents. Depending on screen real estate, the MDI can be useful. This approach makes it easy to show and hide windows relating to an application. If applications take over the full screen, as they almost always do on Windows, MDI works fine.

With Apple's SDI approach, users can have many documents open on the desktop, which can become confusing. Apple has addressed this issue with a variety of ways to hide applications and related documents and palettes (Option + Click); Expose, which with a move of the mouse can provide various views documents as large "thumbnails" for navigation; and Spaces, which lets users group applications into a more narrow workflow. Expose always amazes Windows users with its elegance and simplicity.

Power Mac users have long taken to using large displays and multiple screens to expand their view of their documents and Apple has supported easy setup and configuration of multiple displays. They can group tools and documents across workspaces and create a sophisticated and power workflow.

Yet at the same time, Apple has undermined this interface strategy with an increasing number of applications that can only open one document at a time, such as iMovie and iDVD. Some other applications only have one window, including iPhoto, iTunes, and even the professional Aperture product. They function much like an MDI.

An excellent critique of this "one-window" approach was offered in a post by Lukas Mathis several years ago on his Ignore the Code blog. He says MDIs are bad for the Mac and looked at how Adobe mitigated its use of MDI.

Some implementations of MDI make it hard to remove palettes from the main window. This is bad because in a multi-screen environment, a typical setup is to move all palettes to one screen, while keeping documents on the other screen. Again, the CS4 UI allows for this, so no complaints here.

MDI takes away space on larger screens. After your screen reaches a certain size, it doesn’t make much sense to maximize windows anymore. Having an MDI means you always waste space with a ton of application chrome around your documents - space which could be used by other applications running at the same time. Again, CS4 has a solution for this; hitting tab removes the application chrome (although I wasn’t able to get it back easily - hitting tab again did nothing at all). Unfortunately, the application chrome is not hidden if the application is put in the background while in MDI mode.

I blame the influence of the browser for this trend. And the MacBook and the iMacs with smaller displays. Everything in a browser and browser-based app is contained within a single window. Over time we've gotten used to the browser being more than a content container. It's made users comfortable with the MDI approach. At the same time, MDI appeals to computers with smaller screens, there's not the expanded real estate of very large displays or multiple monitors.

So, Microsoft is moving its professional Mac suite to an MDI. I get it but don't have to like it. There are many of us who find that tool palettes don't "really get in the way."

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Topics: Microsoft, Apple, Hardware, Software, Windows

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  • Don't like it? Don't use it then

    It is as simple as that. There are plenty of
    alternatives. Yes, MS Office is the most complete,
    but sure you could get by with OpenOffice if you
    like the 20th century user interfaces so much.

    OOo is pure Office 97 love.
    • Author sounds like a drama-queen

      Ribbon is just fine. I'm glad those menu items are gone. RIBBON GUI feels far more natural
    • Hmmm, sounds a lot like "America: Love it or leave it".

      Same thing, but replace country with company.

      Shame all those who said "America: Love it or leave it" between January 2001 and January 2009 are still here... they don't love it right now...
  • Because it's better...

    ...really, you Mac guys need to decide if you like progress or not.
    Sleeper Service
    • Does look a little ugly on the Mac screenshots, though

      And it seems that the advantage that the ribbon
      takes up less screen real estate is somewhat gone
      on the Macs.

      But as I said above: Don't like it? Don't use it.
      No one are forcing Mac users to use a specific
      brand of software. That's for iPhone, iPods and
      Giant iPods.
      • I suppose...

        ...but they can always switch to Windows on their Macs if it's an issue.

        Once you get used to it the Ribbon is a brilliant, brilliant idea.
        Sleeper Service
        • Bet you said the same thing about Clippy....

          Was Clippy progress? Was Clippy another MS
          "brilliant, brilliant idea"?

          Was Vista a "brilliant, brilliant idea"? That
          was progress too huh?

          Right up there with Windows ME?

          But hey, don't take my word for it... 99.7% of
          Office users all agree... The Ribbon sucks and
          so does Clippy.

          But you keep telling yourself it doesn't suck
          and we'll try to keep our laughter to
          • Clippy ...

            ... was a cute idea intended to help users make better use of Office. However, it was poorly designed, planned and implemented largely because it didn't actually help people do more - it distracted and annoyed them.

            You can't win 'em all ;)

            ME was a Windows release driven by marketing because Allchin had steered the Windows division down the wrong path (remember "Cairo"?) and XP was still late.

            Vista was the result of the Windows team scrambling to recover and yet still build an ambitious OS release after Allchin had to cancel the already-late "Longhorn".

            Luckily, Allchin "retired" after Vista and the Windows org is headed by the supremely capable Steven Sinofsky (evidence: Win7).

            Ribbon, in fact, was actually created under Sinofsky's watch (he used to head Office development) and was born from careful study and analysis of how people used Office. They found that very few people used even half of Office's features, nor knew that many of those features even existed! They also found that most Office users spent an inordinate amount of time in dialog-boxes rather than in front of their document. The ribbon changes this significantly by massively reducing the number of times that users have to enter a dialog and moves access to most features up into the Ribbon, smack in front of the user.

            Use the Ribbon for a week and I'll bet you won't want to go back.
          • The people who knew all the features before

            are the people who have a problem with it the most. The more casual Office users are much quicker with the new interface. There are those where the changes are severly disruptive and I understand that. But to completely halt UI progress because 5-10% of the population can't/won't adapt is silly.

            And the Access power users I know absolutely love Access 2007. Some of what I've seen savvy users do is pretty amazing.
          • That must be why Office 2007 sales suffered...

            ...oh wait, they didn't.

            Not sure why you're ranting about operating systems unless it's to disguise the fact that you don't actually have a point.
            Sleeper Service
    • It's not

      Hate the Ribbon. Period, end of story. Takes up way too much space, is too limiting, and leaves you with a HUH? every time you try to use it.
      • You CAN minimize it

        And it only shows up when you click on the menu. Real estate problem solved. The "HUH" problem will be solved with familiarity.
      • So minimize it

        Uh, just minimize it then. It just shows up when you want it. Useful on netbook-class resolutions.

        Also, why do people say "end of story" and then continue to drone on?
      • Well since you didn't even know how to minimize it...

        ...I don't think I'll take your words that seriously.
        Sleeper Service
    • After a year of being forced to use Ribbons....

      They bite. The only UI Microsoft has that is worse is "IntelliMenus". At
      least you can turn those off.
      • After two years of using The Ribbon ...

        ... I LOVE IT. As do every single customer I've worked with.

        If you're resistent to change, you chould choose a different field of interest - carpentry perhaps. The world of IT is about evolution, change, finding and trying new things, etc.

        The reason MS added the Ribbon to MacOffice is because they have very detailed metrics on user behavior before, during and after learning how to use the Ribbon. The data is clear: once learned, the Ribbon results in significantly improved usage performance and markedly improved feature consumption.
        • I find about 10% of the users like them.

          If you are in IT, then the only time people call you is when they have
          issue. Those with issues with Word, more than likely, do not use Word
          much. For those people, Ribbons are not bad.

          For people actually trying to get work done, they are a RPITA.

          I am a user of Word. The people I work with are Users of Word. We have
          500 page documents. Ribbons are a poor pathetic excuse for a UI if you
          use the product much.
          • I'm not sure we can rely...

            on your personal experience as an accurate representation of the populace. If you don't like it, fine. I'm in Word all day long as well and it hasn't bothered me. I've been using word since 97. It may depend on what you use word for. I create technical documents, and I like it better. I will say it took me a while to get used to it when I moved from 2003.

            Is it possible that people have different opinions on this subject, that are valid? Whether you like or dislike the ribbon is very subjective. If someone disagrees with you it doesn't automatically make them a newbie who has little experience, or a hardened old-school vet who is unable to accept change. If you would like to have a productive discussion, maybe you could give us some examples of specific operations that you perform in Word, and how it takes you longer to do it in 2007 vs 2003.
          • Quit with the generalizations: Precisely WHY do you feel that the Ribbon ..

            ... is such a RPITA?

            How EXACTLY does it slow you down or make your job more difficult?
      • With my extensive use of the Ribbon,

        I have found that it is much more efficient. If I want to insert something, I go to the insert tab. If I want to include references, I can go to the references tab. That tab is full of tools I didn't even know existed in Office 2003. That is the problem the Ribbon solves; all of the really great functionality was hidden under 50 layers of menus and dialog boxes. I also love that I only see options for things that are contextually relevant. If I am editing a picture, I see the picture tab. If I am editing the header and footer, I see the header and footer tab. If I am editing a SmartArt graphic, I see the SmartArt graphic tab. I think you can see where I am going with this. I liked the office button (I could find it because it blinked, flashed, told me what it did, and popped out at me), but I recognize that most people didn't like it. That shouldn't be a problem, because that is not on the MacRibbon.