Microsoft Ribbon Hero: A brilliant training tool from Office Labs

Microsoft Office Labs introduced Ribbon Hero today, a competitive game for training users to fully exploit the features of Office 2007/2010. An early preview showed that it's not the least bit gimmicky; in fact, this could be a game-changer in end-user training.

It isn't often that Microsoft earns a "brilliant" label from me. More often, it's grudging praise for one of its products or a backhanded compliment or two. Most recently, I asked if Office 2010 was worth the price, especially for users happy with Office 2007. In particular, I wanted to know if an upgrade or purchase made sense when most users only scratch the surface of Office functionality.

Today, however, Microsoft's Office Labs group is rolling out a prototype training tool with the potential to get users to do much more than scratch the surface of Office. This tool, in fact, is so compelling that it just might change the way we think about end user training and could potentially offer productivity increases over cloud and free productivity tools that really do help Office pay for itself.

I'm talking about Ribbon Hero. A few of the project managers at Microsoft working on Ribbon Hero gave me a preview on Monday and, obviously, I'm really impressed. The idea is to get people competing for "achievements" (yes, the Office Labs group did work with the XBox group, specifically consulting with them on motivational strategies and factors in console games). These achievements are largely centered around the use of the various features in Office embedded in the navigation ribbons that users new to 2007/2010 often find disconcerting (I'm being diplomatic here since I actually like the ribbons). Here's how it works:

  • Users of Office 2007/2010 download the Ribbon Hero prototype tool from Office Labs.
  • They connect Ribbon Hero to their Facebook accounts (this part is actually optional but the ubiquity of Facebook and the competition it introduces make it a fairly irresistible feature).
  • Users start racking up points based on their use of features and completion of challenges (small tasks designed to teach a specific skill).
  • Users can compare their progress to friends on Facebook using Ribbon Hero, find out where their friends are strong and how they are earning points, and can post new achievements on their walls.

There are a few videos as well as download links and instructions at OfficeLabs.com.

If all this sounds a bit dorky, it is. But the countless people who wile away the hours on WOW, Dungeons and Dragons, and Farmville (all arguably dorky in their own way) will buy into this in a heartbeat. Better yet, Microsoft has actually done their research on the way people learn in the context of gaming and included real thought to the pedagogy of applications training: short, relevant tasks, immediate feedback and reinforcement, and enough difficulty to be challenging with enough supports to be successful. It even adapts the difficulty of the challenges to the speed with which a user completes them.

And to answer my question about the value proposition of Office 2010 versus Office 2007, the truly diabolical folks at Microsoft have included several challenges highlighting the new features in 2010. Users of 2007 can see these challenges and a brief description of the new feature, but can't complete the challenge until they download the 2010 beta (and later, pay for a downloaded upgrade). Office Labs is, of course, tracking these downloads to determine both the effectiveness of the teaser challenges and how compelling the new features are for end users.

Although Ribbon Hero is very much a prototype of a training tool (the job of the Office Lab folks is, after all, to prototype new Office features and test their utility for possible inclusion in future releases), it has the potential to be really transformative in the way we train our users. It taps into social and adaptive learning paradigms and important research on motivation and learning. I have the distinct feeling that this tool won't be a prototype for long; rather, it might really help make the case for 2010 adoption given that training tools like this simply don't exist elsewhere. If users can more fully use its robust feature set and increase productivity as a result of Ribbon Hero, Office 2010 becomes a much easier sell.