One of the best features Microsoft instituted when it introduced its Windows line of operating systems was the standardization of several key interface tools that reduced the learning curve from software title to software title. Over the years, Windows users became so accustomed to the drop-down menu system for accessing a program’s functions that it is a wonder why Microsoft would institute a new system and give users no ability to revert to the older system.
The File/Edit/View/etc. drop-down menu system in Window’s software has become so common that buyers of new software expect every software title they buy to use this system. In a bold move, Microsoft introduced the Ribbon with its release of Microsoft Office 2007. Users of popular programs such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have a moderate learning curve to overcome when upgrading to this latest version of Office 2007. To make matters worse, customizability of the Ribbon in Office 2007 is impossible, forcing users to adapt to the new system whether they like it or not. (Note that Ribbon customization will be possible in Office 2010.)
A Closer Look at the Microsoft Office 2007 Ribbon
Now that the familiar drop-down menus made so popular by Microsoft have been removed from the MS Office line of software, users are forced to adapt to the new Ribbon which some find more useful than the old menu system. Figure 1 is a screenshot from Microsoft Word 2007 showing part of the new Ribbon system. Notice that many of the functions familiar to users of older versions of Word look very similar. Font, font size, bold, underline, italic and other functions work much as they did in previous version of Word.
Notice that at the top of Figure 1, users may change the Ribbon’s content by clicking on Home, Insert, Page Layout, etc. These are not drop down menus but groupings of Word functions that change depending on which selection is active. The Home Ribbon contains the most common functions such as font and paragraph options, style settings, cut/copy/paste options, and about 85% of the most common Word functions. The Insert group contains anything a user might insert into a Word document. These include tables, pictures, shapes, symbols, hyperlinks, and clip art. Like the Insert Ribbon, the remainder of the Ribbons contains those functions a user would reasonably expect to find under their respective titles.
Other MS Office software titles such as Excel, PowerPoint, and Access have similar Ribbons with functions specific to those particular software packages. For example, instead of References as found in Word 2007 (see Figure 1), Excel 2007 has a Formulas Ribbon. Instead of Mailings found in Word, Excel sports a Data Ribbon. One popular MS Office title was spared the move from drop-down menus to the Ribbon. Users of MS Publisher 2007 will find that the program operates just as it did in previous versions. There is no official word from Microsoft as to why Publisher 2007 does not use the Ribbon. Some have surmised that Microsoft focused its attention on positioning the Ribbon in its most popular software titles of which Publisher is not one. Whether the Ribbon will be integrated into all Microsoft Office titles in the future can only be answered as new versions of Office are released.
Customizing the Ribbon and Going Back to the Old Drop-Down system
Two major complaints have arisen from users of the new Ribbon that are worth mentioning. First, the Ribbon is completely uncustomizable. Unlike the toolbars of previous versions of MS Office, there is no ability to move functions around or add new functions to the Ribbon. Apparently, Microsoft is interested so strongly in standardizing its Office interface they deny the user any ability to customize the Ribbon. This fact does not sit well with new users of Office 2007, especially those unaware that the Ribbon was introduced in this new version of the software.
Most surprising to new user of Office 2007 is the discovery that Microsoft did not add any ability to revert to the older drop-down system. Normally, when a software title makes a major change, it gently encourages the user to try the new system. One example from Microsoft is the Start Menu introduced in Windows XP. This Start Menu differed greatly from previous versions of Windows. Knowing that some people may not like the change, the option to revert to the older Start Menu found in Windows 95, 98, and ME was just a click away. Apparently, Microsoft was not interested in gently nudging people to the new Ribbon system but dropped it into users’ laps with no ability to opt out.
Although a bold move, Microsoft’s new Ribbon menu system has garnered generally favorable reviews by it users. Difficult to get used to at first, it later becomes clear to most users that the most common functions that would normally take several clicks now only take one or two. With widescreen monitors (16:10 and 16:9), the entire Ribbon is visible placing nearly all the commands in an MS Office 2007 program within reach. Those with standard (4:3) monitors (or those using low resolutions) will see an abbreviated Ribbon that expands and contracts as the amount of screen real estate changes. The best advice is to make the move to Office 2007 and take some time to acclimate to the Ribbon command system. In the end, users usually find the jump from drop-down menus to the Ribbon a pleasant experience.