was a cold winter afternoon early in 2004, and we were in the midst of doing
some of the first usability tests with a working, clickable prototype of the
Ribbon. (Prior to that, most of our prototypes had been
This particular prototype was put together in PowerPoint as a fairly inexpensive
way to mock up a basic Ribbon and to see whether people got the concept.
Basically, we put a picture of each tab of the Ribbon in a separate slide in the
PowerPoint deck. We turned off the "click to advance" functionality for
each slide, and then drew a nearly transparent square around each tab of the
Ribbon. Each of these squares was hooked up to an action so that clicking
on them advanced to the slide that revealed the picture of the tab you were
In this way, we were able to simulate a tabbed user interface just by drawing 8
or 10 pictures. None of the commands within the Ribbon really worked in
these early prototypes; we just would watch and listen to see where they clicked
within the tab.
Anyway, this afternoon our subject came in to the usability lab. I don’t
remember his name; I’ll call him "Bob." Middle-aged and friendly, he was
one of our least experienced test subjects, yet he caught on to the Ribbon
paradigm quickly. Soon, he was finding the target features faster than
anyone in previous tests, zooming from tab to tab as efficiently as we could
imagine. Especially when he was asked to find features repeatedly (to test
the learnability of the design), Bob was able to whisk to his target tab and
acquire the requested feature extremely fast.
My colleagues and I were back in the usability control room, watching Bob’s
performance on TV, so we couldn’t
see exactly what he was doing with the mouse. But we could tell something
So, after the test, the usability engineer started the debrief with Bob, asking
how he liked what he used.
"Great!" he replied. "I especially love the way you can use the scroll
wheel of the mouse to riffle through the tabs; it’s so fast and easy!"
All of a sudden, we realized what had happened. Although we turned off the
"click to advance" functionality in PowerPoint, it still has a built in behavior
in Slide Show mode whereby scrolling the mouse wheel one tick advances your
show by one slide. Reversing it takes you back by one slide. Because
we had each of the Ribbon tab pictures in order in the slide deck, Bob was able
to use the scroll wheel to browse through and acquire any tab he wanted.
This was a totally unintentional and coincidental feature of the prototype, yet
it was Bob’s favorite part of the new UI.
Bob went on his way and we never saw him again. Unbeknownst to him, he
helped design a major part of the interaction design of the Ribbon.
Although we didn’t get it working in time for Beta 1, in current builds you can
use the scroll wheel to zoom between the tabs, just as Bob envisioned.
It’s great for quickly jumping to a tab, clicking a command, and then flicking
your finger all the way up to get back to the main tab. It saves me clicks
and time. (Using the scroll wheel below the Ribbon still scrolls the
document, of course.)
Although the fact that many tabbed web browsers use the scroll wheel to switch
tabs means that we might have thought of it anyway, I like to think of this as the
feature Bob invented.