The Feature Bob Invented

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
clicking on.

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.

The Ribbon is made up of tabs (click to view full picture)

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
was up.

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.

Thanks, Bob!

Comments (29)

  1. CJ says:

    I do like the feature but I hope there is an

    option to turn off this scroll behavior.

    Some mice (at least an IBM one) have a "stick"

    which does not have a "scroll tick". That

    mouse did not give a smooth experience in

    scrolling Firefox tabs.

    I guess the mouse shown here is similar –

  2. Dave Solimini says:

    I like this feature a lot, but I have a question: Is switching tabs this way instantaneous? Or is there some sort of animation of tab-sliding or something between tab switches? I would expect there to be something like that for tab switches..



  3. John Topley says:

    When I read the deadline for this article I thought it was talking about a feature that came from MS Bob!

    Presumably this scrolling of tabs works when the Ribbon has the input focus, but how do you know that? Or do you just move the mouse pointer to within the Ribbon?

  4. Phylyp says:

    The other interesting takeaway from this would be something on the lines of (pseudo-) randomizing any test data/the mockup.

    Failing to do so is like writing a new sorting algorithm and testing it on already sorted data.

    [Note: My statements don’t make much sense to even me, but I hope that you get what I’m driving at :)]

  5. MSDNArchive says:

    Looks like you have to have your mouse hovering over the ribbon. Obviously, people wouldn’t like it if they couldn’t wheel-scroll through their documents and spreadsheets.

  6. Mike Dunn says:

    John> The feature that MS Bob invented was Clippy – and we know how that one turned out. 😉

  7. Joku says:

    Great feature. Like some other said, few Logitech mouses such as MX1000 have no-steps/clicks wheel. When looking for a new mouse I went for the G5 because it had very clicky wheel.

  8. Matt says:

    Umm, my MX1000 has a clicky wheel. It’s not hugely clicky, but there’s a definite click as you scroll it.

  9. Off topic, but is the new Office 12 really going to be called Office 2007?


  10. ChrisC says:

    "Microsoft Office 2007"? I’d say probably, because then when the ship slips to December it will be accurate enough.

    Jensen, please explain to the marketing wenies that if they do relabel "Microsoft Word" as "Microsoft Office Word" that everyone is going to stop writing "word" and start writing "mow" 😉

    (I can hear my linux friends now, "If you *want* your doc chopped up, just keep using MOW.")

  11. duh says:

    Simply wow!

    An excellent example of useless people usefullness.

  12. Richard Swift says:

    Excellent! Jensen, maybe you could invite Bob back to the lab and ask him to scroll through a large VBA file and see if he mentions anything else inspiring?

    [hint: the mouse wheel doesn’t work in VBA editor – please fix it if at all possible]

  13. I’ll be honest; PowerPoint is one of those applications that I treat rather harshly. I’ve been put off by too many awful presentations with whooshing bullet points, dreadful clip art and perhaps even a few sound effects for good measure. As far as ..

  14. Darren Baker says:

    AMEN, Richard Swift. AMEN!

  15. jensenh says:

    Darren and Richard:

    What can I say, I think you’ll like the VBA editor in Office 2007… 🙂

  16. A couple of weeks ago when I talked about
    Feature Bob Invented, I mentioned that we use PowerPoint…

  17. Rage Steel says:

    Using mouse wheel for navigating tabs sounds good.

    How about in-ribbon galleries? Will I be forced to use up and down triangles?

  18. It was bound to show up after the beta 1 release of the Office System. Just like with CommandBars the