Lingering Around

One of the key concepts in the Office 2007 user interface is Contextual Tabs. Whenever an object is selected, the tools for working with that object are made available in the Ribbon. I've talked about them in an introductory article and just last week I posted a design history of the steps we took along the way.

Contextual Tabs in Office 2007 - Click to enlarge picture

Contextual Tabs in Office 2007 - Click to enlarge picture

A number of people have asked the question "When do Contextual Tabs appear?" Today, I thought I'd share the (fairly simple) algorithm underlying the design.

The first, incontrovertible rule is this: whenever an object is selected, the Contextual Tabs for that item are available. You can, of course, continue to use the core tabs, but the object-specific tools are also available. This rule applies 100% of the time, for all objects in Office. Pretty straightforward so far, eh?

Most of the time, what people are really asking is: "in which scenarios do the Contextual Tabs automatically bring themselves forward?" The answer to that is a tad more complex, but still basically straightforward.

  1. Whenever you insert an object, you are brought to the first tab of the Contextual Tab set for that object.

  2. Whenever you double-click an object, you are brought to the first tab of the Contextual Tab set for that object.

So far, so good. There's only one additional rule:

  1. If you deselect a selected object and then click right back on it without performing any other commands in-between, we put you back in the Contextual Tabs where you were before you deselected the object.

This third item was a feature called "lingering" that we added based on very early real-world research. What we found was that an extremely common scenario involved people using an object, clicking away from it to make the selection handles go away (to get a better look at it) and then clicking right back on the object to continue formatting it.

Before we made this change, someone would be using the Layout tab of the Chart Tools. They would click away for a second, then click back on the object and when they would go to use the Ribbon, they were suddenly back on the Sheet tab. Confusion reigned. Since implementing "lingering," the usability results on Contextual Tabs have become very solid.

So now you know the three rules which determine when we navigate to a Contextual Tab.

Comments (18)
  1. Nate says:

    Very nice. My only concern is the titlebar text. It jumps around to get out of the way of the contextual tabs. Why not just left justify it?

  2. An old PITA when formatting graphics in PowerPoint: it’s always the wrong tab that’s selected. eg I want size, I get position – and vice versa (I could never see any system in that). Do contextual tabs remember the last used tab?

  3. Joe Fiorini says:

    I love the new toolbar-based UI.  I’m really excited for this to become mainstream in the next few years.  One question: will the other Office 2007 apps (Visio, OneNote, Outlook, etc) use the ribbon or are they going to stay as they currently are?

  4. John Topley says:


    I don’t see how the title bar text can be left justified because the Office Button and Quick Access Toolbar are in the way. It’s a shame because left-justified text has been the Windows standards since Windows 95.

  5. Jote says:

    > I don’t see how the title bar text can be left justified because the Office Button and Quick Access Toolbar are in the way

    Argh! So what? You still can justify it to the LEFT next to QAT. I don’t like the idea of "jump-centering" either

  6. Abigail says:

    The only apps that use the Ribbon (for *this* release) are Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Access, with Outlook employing the new look and using the Ribbon where it makes sense (e.g., in composing new mail you get tabs similar to what you’d find in Word).

  7. PatriotB says:

    I have to agree with the others that the title bar text should be left-justified.  There is zero reason to go against the OS on this one.  (In a perfect world, you’d be using the OS-provided title bar, but if you’re going to draw your own, at least put the text in the same place.)  Vista isn’t ushering in centered-text title bars, so Office 12 shouldn’t either.

  8. Jote says:

    Will Outlook utilize the new UI? I’m not talking ribbons here (because it’s been said that Outlook won’t have ribbons except for the compose message window) but the new titlebar and updated toolbar buttons to match Word/Excel/Powerpoint/Access theme?

    You know, it will look at least strange if all those apps have the new shiny baby blue skin except for Outlook, which will look outdated using standard Office2003 interface…

  9. Jonatan says:

    I also agree about the window-caption-left-align-thing. I guess it would be ok to have it centered if the text was not moved to the left each time the contextual tabs appear, but I think it would be better to keep it at the same position all the time (left-aligned)

    That said, I think the new tabs will be a great step forward than having all those floating object-specifik toolbars laying around.

    Another question… What´s the logic behind the different tab colors?

  10. Speculate all you want; the proof is in the pudding.

  11. David Totzke says:

    Lionell.  Get your eyes checked mate.  If you can’t work on a 17 or 19 inch screen then you can always turn on the extensive accessibility support that Windows and Office provide.  

    How can you possibly think for even a second that Microsoft doesn’t test this stuff out with real world users?  

    Anyhow, I think I hear your mother calling you for dinner.  Get out of the basement once in a while and see what’s going on in the "real" world.

    Gack.  Give us all a break.

  12. Johnny says:

    Well, I think the title should also be left-justified because if you have a contextual tab and the title side by side, this will only confuse the user. Seems like the title and the name of the contextual tab can be quite confusing all together.

    Question is how do you render your contextual tab each time a user adds or selects an object, do you create a new one or just hide them?


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