Why is it called the Ribbon?

Because you can never predict what name will end up sticking.

Back when my team was working on the UI redesign of Outlook 2003, one of the areas we were designing was what marketing later named the "Navigation Pane."  But official feature naming happens late in the product cycle (usually after Beta 1), and so there's always some internal name that sticks around long after the official name comes into use.

When we were working on the feature list for Outlook 2003, the line item that became the Navigation Pane was called "Combined Outlook Bar and Folder List."  Fortunately, a member of my team had the foresight to realize that it was a crappy name to have to live with for 2 years.  He suggested that we name it the "WunderBar' instead.  That worked out great because it was a snappy name, easy to say, it has positive connotations (Wonder) and it was funny because we had a large number of native German speakers on the team at the time.  Later on, someone found a WunderBar candy bar and it also turned out that the ketchup dispensers in the cafeteria were called the "Wunder-Bar."  All the better.  Even today, many people internally still call the Navigation Pane by its original name and all of the code still refers to it as such.

So where did "Ribbon" come from?

Back in the fall of 2003 we were working hard to produce a number of different prototypes in an attempt to determine what direction we wanted to go with the new UI.  We drew lots of pictures and spent a lot of time debating the merits of different directions.

A few of us were in an office brainstorming and I proposed the idea of a "ribbon" of commands.  Imagine something like a medieval scroll, in which a long strip of paper was wound around two spindles and you could move back and forth along the paper by turning one of the spindles.  I guess in computer terms, it would have looked like an extremely long scrolling series of commands in a thin strip--sort of like the Office 12 Ribbon with the tab content laid side-to-side, and then add ultra-fast scrolling in both directions.

Needless to say, that was a stupid idea (I'm not sure we even bothered to draw it), but it kind of organically morphed into a set of pictures called "Ribbon" in which we took the same idea but separated it into tabs instead.  By the time we had fleshed out the idea, we were calling it the Ribbon--even though it didn't really make much sense anymore.

That, I suppose, would have been the optimum point to have recognized that we needed a catchier name (ala WunderBar), but alas, we didn't and by a few days later, calling it something else just would have confused everyone.  Also, the Ribbon was but one of many ideas on the table and it wasn't clear at the time that it was the one we were going to build.

So, totally by accident, a name describing a different UI mechanism entirely is still the code name we're using today.

Comments (24)
  1. Rick Schaut says:

    The "Formatting Palette" in Mac Office was originally called the "Property Browser". Having things change name after you’ve written the code makes life interesting for developers. You have to remember that the name in the code is not what it’s called everywhere else.

    And, it gets worse as time goes on. The original implementation of the Formatting Palette was done for Mac Office 2001. With time comes turnover. People move on to other jobs, new people come in, and, as they learn the new code, they don’t have that knowledge of how the names of things have changed over time.

    By the way, the word "Ribbon" isn’t new. Mac Word 5.0 had one, and it was the precursor to toolbars. Now, it’s a replacement for toolbars. Funny how things come full-circle.


  2. Rick Scott says:

    The name the devs call it can be different from its "official" name…but sometimes the users call it something different, too. System Tray anyone?

    I can see everyone in user-land start calling it the "header bar" or something. Or maybe ribbon will stick. Most likely, users will call it "that one place with the buttons and stuff".

  3. Kawigi says:

    Or "The Toolbar"

    Speaking of meaningless names for the ribbon, I think I remember some people trying to call it the "Office Space". Any story on that, Jensen?

  4. jensenh says:

    "OfficeSpace" is another name that was used early as kind of the general name for the UI area in Office 12–I think it even pre-dates the Ribbon. But there’s lots of code that references "OfficeSpace" still as well. Once names get in the code, it’s not usually worth it to touch hundreds of files just to change names. There are many cryptic and often funny internal names for features. There’s one particular feature that’s been in the product since the late 90s that had a very funny name in the code–but I can’t share it here. πŸ™‚

  5. Rick Schaut says:

    I’d thought of Ben Waldman’s feature, but decided against mentioning it for likely the same reasons. By the way, the copyright date in the header file for that feature is 1994, and the explanatory comment has been bowdlerized in the Win Office source tree. The original comment remains intact in the Mac Office source tree. If you want to know how Ben described it, let me know :-).

  6. Step says:

    Now I’m curious. πŸ™‚ Btw, I like Ribbon – probably for two reasons.

    1 – It’s short and sweet, and easy to say.

    2 – I’m so excited about how much of an improvement it looks like it will be.

  7. TC says:

    Jensen, my comment is offtopic for your post, but ontopic for Office.

    Previous versions of the Office apps have contained easter eggs. For example, Excel 95(?) had a complete adventure game with graphics, rivers, dungeons & so on. You could navigate a figure through a wall (IIRC), over a bridge, & so on.

    I’ve always felt that the inclusion of those eggs, was hugely unprofessional. Every second, every byte, that was spent on those eggs, was completely unpropductive from an end-user viewpoint. Indded, it is /counter/ productive, because it just adds more code with the inevitable quantum of bugs & problems. IMO, the managers responsible for letting those eggs into the codebase, should have been … erm … thoroughly egged!

    So my question is this. Will contemporary versions of Office contain any easter eggs? I’m hoping to hear no; not yes. IMHO, you should rigorously get rid of all of them.

    Looking forward to hearing your views on this.

  8. TC says:

    Jensen H wrote: "There are many cryptic and often funny internal names for features." Is the guy who chose "NSA_Key" still laughing? πŸ™‚

  9. jensenh says:

    Current versions of Microsoft products do not contain "Easter Eggs."

    This has been true for the last five years or so (in Office, the last version I’m aware of with eggs was Office 2000.)

  10. TC says:

    Jensen, my second post (above) seems to have messed up these comments. When I come back to this page, I see my first comment (above) ok, in its entirety, but then the text of my second comment (and your reply) just flashes up for an instantl & then disappears. Just thought I would mention it, perhaps other people are seeing that also.

  11. Max Palmer says:

    I like the name the ribbon bar, to me it sounds like a thick toolbar, which (visually) is what it resembles – with tabs of course.

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