Most People Are Not Trained In Geology

One of the tenets of the Office 12 user interface is that we don't want people
to have to look "under rocks."

I don't know why we say "under rocks."  Maybe I made it up, maybe I heard
it somewhere, who knows.  The picture I get in my head is an insect-eating
animal crossing the land, turning over rocks to look for meals. 
Occasionally, a rock will be hiding a juicy insect.  Most times, however,
there's nothing under the rock.  As a result, the animal spends most of his
day looking under rocks.

In a user interface, a "rock" is anything you have to click to see what's under
it.  The more rocks you have to look under, the harder it is to find what
you're looking for efficiently.  When you have a UI with a lot of rocks to
look under, people start to feel like your program is very complex.  It's
like the shell game--people
start forgetting what rocks they've looked under and which they haven't. 
Eventually, people give up ever looking for new things and instead just use the
same three rocks they always use.

As you add more features to a product, the tendency is for the number of rocks
to go up.  Yet, the more rocks there are, the less likely people are to
explore them.  This is a hard issue to solve.  Here are some of the
steps we've taken in Office 12 to help people look under fewer rocks:

  • The Ribbon
    is the starting point for all functionality.  Unlike the
    old system, in which you had to look under short menus, long menus,
    toolbars, hidden toolbars, the Task Pane stack, all commands in Office 12
    start in the Ribbon.

  • Everything gets a label, especially dropdowns.  If you can keep
    someone from turning over a rock by giving that rock a good name, then
    that's a huge win.  You don't ever have to open up a can of Sprite to
    know what's inside it.

  • Use specific labels.  Engineers love to name things "Tools" or
    "Options" or "More" or "Advanced."  This is just like putting a "Turn
    Me Over" sticker on the rock--the name is so ambiguous and yet so promising
    that people are going to turn it over every time.  A label for a menu
    like "Import Data From" is never going to take a click from someone looking
    for Word Count.

  • Contextualization!  I've made
    case for contextualization already
    , so I won't bore you again here. 
    But contextualization simplifies the core experience by only showing the
    rocks that are capable of having insects under them.

Looking under the rocks that are left is less inefficient if there's a clear
route for the user to follow from the first one to the last one.  Think of
100 rocks lined up in a row vs. the same rocks scattered in a random pattern. 
In which case could you look under all 100 rocks faster and be assured that you
looked under all of them and didn't forget any of them?  We designed the
Ribbon to be the single home for functionality and to have a built-in, simple
scanning pattern (chunk to chunk, tab to tab.)  It's finite and you know
when you've seen all the rocks.

It's impossible to eliminate all the rocks from all but the simplest products, and of course there are always
trade-offs.  But in Office 12, we've tried to be hardcore about resisting
the urge to generically categorize or to invent multiple ways to access the same

One of the questions we always challenge ourselves with is: "are we just
creating another rock for people to look

Comments (12)

  1. Great post. Knowing the guiding principals behind the UI design (not to mention knowing there IS one. 🙂 is a great help in understanding the UI.

    Even though, as a hardcore geek myself, I always find myself looking for the Tools -> Options -> Advanced menu…

  2. iGav says:

    But how will the ribbon affect those of us who have been using Word day in day out for years and years???

    For instance, I tend not to use my mouse to do things with buttons on toolbars. nor do I tend to use the mouse with menus. What I do though is use the alt key sequences to acheive 90% of interactions with the program.

    Will these shortcuts remain the same, or will I have to learn an entirely new way of using the program?

    What I can tell you is that IF the ribbon means I will have to find a new way of doing everything which I now do quickly, efficiently and without having to think about it, then I shall NOT want to upgrade, nor I suspect will anyone who uses Word to any degree of proficiency. So I would suggest that you should at least make it possible to continue using the UI that we have been using for such a long time, otherwise we just might stop using your software once and for all

  3. russ says:

    Why don’t you just go back to using typewriters iGav? You seem to be more at home in the past, perhaps you should stay there while the rest of us upgrade to these fancy new computers, automobiles, and electricity.

    On a more serious note Microsoft has already stated that there will be an "alt-compatibility" mode where none of the ALT keyboard shortcuts are changed – meaning you can continue to use them just like you do now. But for those of us who like to learn new things there is a new ALT keyboard mode that makes much more sense and gives you on-screen indicators (i.e. pressing ALT causes letters to popup over everything on the screen, pressing that letter causes letters to popup on more specific items in that sub-area, and so on so it is very easy to learn the shortcuts as you are working with the program.)

  4. anon says:

    Jensen, on contextualization. Big concept indeed. Here are my thoughts. Many moons ago, when I used to teach Word to non-techies, I always had a very hard time explaining feature "x" that required to select an object, for instance a word, and then click on a toolbar button, only then to proceed with feature "y" where you would first click on a toolbar button and only then tell Word where to put the object.

    Well that’s not contextualization, that’s simply state management. Do you guys plan to revamp this?

    PS : I didn’t receive an email notification for the Office 12 beta. Do you guys plan to extend the reach of the beta so that we don’t spend our time asking instead of just using the product?

  5. jensenh says:

    anon, you can register for the beta program here:

  6. anon says:

    Thanks for the link, but I have already registered a while ago. I have read elsewhere a bunch of people didn’t get the betaplace email either.

  7. Step says:

    Use specific labels – that’s a hard one! As you point out, engineers want everything to be as "correct" as possible, which usually ends up making the labels near useless. I’m glad to see you’re fighting that for the next release – I look forward to seeing how well the ribbon eliminates "rock-looking". 🙂

  8. Since you mentioned "beta", are you allowed to disclose when it’s going to start?

  9. iGav says:


    I am more than capable of using a computer and am no Luddite, what I will object to however as a long-term user will be if I am reduced from being a power user who can achieve most of what I need to achieve efficeintly and without having to look about for how the programmers have decided to change the way I work.

    It is the user of the software who should be paramount in the minds of the programmers.

    As someone who uses this software nearly all day everyday it is extremely important to me that any upgrade doesn’t make me LESS productive than I already am – if it does, then as far as I am concerned then it is a pointless upgrade and will only serve to alienate me

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