Reality Check


It was with a bit of surprise that I read a flurry of stories on Friday with breathless headlines like “Microsoft backs off the Ribbon in Office 2007!” and “Microsoft Cuts Office 2007 Ribbon!”


Part of working at a company like Microsoft is that people are interested in what we do. This means that even the smallest glint of something that looks like an “announcement” can sometimes turn into a major source of news stories in the computer world. (Especially if it gets linked on Slashdot.)


Unfortunately, in this case, there was no actual announcement of substantive changes to the Office 2007 user interface—just someone from Microsoft’s office in Australia ruminating in front of journalists about a few things I wrote on this blog a month or so ago.


The result: stories got published which kind of played up the scope of changes we’ve made to the Office 2007 user interface since Beta 2. Some of these stories, unfortunately, included inaccurate information.


What we had considered to be a relatively minor, if nice, improvement to the way Ribbon minimization works turned into rampant speculation on the ‘net that we were somehow cutting the Ribbon entirely from Office 2007.


So today, I’m going try to clear up any misinformation that might still be out there.


A Game of Telephone


Here’s what actually happened as near as I can tell:


Last month, you might remember that I wrote here on my blog about a few minor improvements we’ve made to the Ribbon since Beta 2—in particular, improving the capabilities and discoverability of the “minimize” feature that’s always been a part of the Ribbon.


A member of Microsoft’s sales organization in Australia read my blog posts and last week, he talked about them to journalists at Tech.Ed in Sydney. Unfortunately, the details of the changes weren’t communicated clearly enough to the audience who was present.


The result was a few stories showing up in the Australian computer press which contained inaccurate information. These stories, in turn, were picked up and republished in many online publications throughout the world.


As the stories continued to appear (and then later were linked from Slashdot and elsewhere), it was like a game of telephone: each version changed a little bit in terms of the details, until eventually there was a lot of misleading information out there.


In a way, it’s funny that the primary source of the information at the core of this misunderstanding is this blog. Yet, by the time the information works its way to Microsoft Australia, through the words of one of the blog’s readers, through a series of articles in the press, and then onto discussion boards and blogs, the original source of the accurate information is long lost.


It shows, I guess, that Microsoft is a big company, and the more we can do to help directly educate people about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, the better it is for everyone.


Reality Check


So, to help set the record straight, here are the facts at the center of the hubbub:



  • As long as the Ribbon has existed, it has included the ability to minimize it; in fact, this capability was present in the very first design review we ever had. If you have Beta 2, you can press CTRL+F1 or double-click the selected tab to see this for yourself.


  • In Beta 2 the minimize state isn’t saved, and the Ribbon expands anytime you use a command with the mouse or keyboard.


  • We improved the minimize feature in the upcoming Beta 2 Technical Refresh by making the minimize state persistent; after you use a command, it returns to its minimized state.

That’s it! That’s really the sum total of the change that netted articles like “Microsoft cutting the Ribbon from Office 2007” and “Another New User Interface for Office 2007.”


Iterative design is one of the keys to the work we’ve done on the Office 2007 UI. We’ve made hundreds of enhancements between each of our four beta releases: from DF4 through Beta 1, Beta 1 TR, Beta 2, and now Beta 2 TR. This is but one of them.


Was this particular improvement a response to customer feedback?


Yes it was. Heavy keyboard users asked for us to remember the minimize state of the Ribbon between keyboard commands and so we did. While we were working on minimization for keyboarding, we went a bit further than people explicitly asked for and made the same tweak for mouse users as well. Both of these affordances were in our original Ribbon design specification; we hoped that we’d have time to build them and happily, we did.


That’s really all there is to it.


The two recent articles I wrote on Ribbon minimization are here:



Mysterious New Text Tips


A few of the articles talked about us adding “large new text tips” in Beta 2 Technical Refresh that would “eat up more screen real-estate.” This is not true, and I’m not exactly sure where that rumor started.


Super Tooltips, which I introduced in this article on December 2, 2005, have been a part of Office 2007 from the beginning, and they are unchanged since Beta 2 (except for updated and more complete content.)


These tooltips have been among the most popular features in our long-term deployments of Office 2007, and they don’t take up any screen real-estate at all. Like any tooltip, they appear only after you hover over a control for a while, and they disappear when you move your mouse away.


In addition, the Super Tooltips always position themselves outside of the Ribbon, so they don’t obscure the control you’re looking for.


To be clear: these “Enhanced ScreenTips” (as the marketing folks would like me to say) aren’t getting bigger or more prominent than they are in Beta 2. And you can, of course, turn them off if you wish.


Epilogue


Honestly, I love that people are excited by Office 2007. It makes working on it fun and fulfilling, and I know the whole team agrees.


But one of the downsides of a high-profile, fast-moving project like this is that sometimes inaccurate information can make its way around, and it can be hard to correct.


This blog is one place you can always come to find out what’s really going on with the Office user interface and the team behind it.

Comments (51)

  1. I’ve seen that article linked on Digg and commented how much it was biased, linking the original source – you.

    I’ve also mailed to the Australian source, in order to suggest an errata corrige.

    I think that this sums up with:

    (1) Check the source

    (2) Link the source

    These two points will have reduced the issue a lot… but still, even journalists at this time doesn’t do these simple but still crucial steps.

    As you said, everything started here, but here the details were correct. It’s also nice to note that many bloggers picked this "news" correctly and on the other side many so-called journalists got it wrong.

    From my perspective, this blog has been crucial in the correction, since many people out there already got the news from a *right* source – this blog. So, hooray to blogs. 😉

    I was expecting this post from you, and you did it. This is another hint on how much you – and the Office team – is sensible to the user feedback.

    Thank you, again.

  2. cpg says:

    I’ve been following this blog for a few months and am using the beta.  Just wanted you to know that I love it.

    Also, I check slashdot everyday and when I saw something along the lines of "Microsoft confuses users and will drop ribbon," I was totally bummed…

    I’m glad that it was just the telephone game.

  3. Charlie Williams says:

    So what you’re saying is that the Ribbon is being replaced by some kind of crazy-big tooltip?

  4. Dan Dautrich says:

    I remember reading some of those articles last week and while I was reading, I remember thinking, "No, that’s absolutely wrong."  And, "Where did they get this absurd information?"  It’s been great being a beta tester of Office 12, and combined with your blog, it’s almost like being ‘on the inside’ of the development.  I firmly believe that this will be the best version of Office ever because of the large amount of user-feedback during development to get things right for the masses the first time.  Without such a large-scale beta program, these features like the persistent minimization may not have made it into the final build, and the ribbon may well have been buried alongside the Office Assistants.

  5. Anonymous Coward says:

    People are morons.  They plagiarize each other left and right, and can’t even do that right.  

    The scary thing is that people are also gullible.  It’s frightening how many people believe everything they see on the TV news and read on cnn.com.  Put "an official source at [Microsoft, or wherever] says" spin on it, and it must be true!

    Whatever happened to checking facts before publication?

  6. Abigail says:

    Way to clear up the brouhaha!

  7. Kermit says:

    You’re being kinder to the press than I would’ve been.

    When I got out of college, I went to work for Microsoft in the early 90’s and worked there until 2002 when I retired.

    I realized within my first month of working there, that 80% of what gets reported by the tech media is distorted, uninformed, and/or outright false.  I had a laugh reading stories in the now-defunct MacWeek on a Mac project I was working on, that was entirely false, attributed to "sources within Microsoft".  And that was before the web.  Now, with the internet, the problem is 5 times worse.  Many tech stories are not only inaccurate, but shallow, vague, and meandering.

    Tech "journalism" (I use that word loosely) is in a very sad state of affairs, and has been for a long time now.

  8. Very funny, how people make assumptions  and believe them to be facts. The misinterpretation of facts seems to be very common in our modern information overloaded enviroment. Famous writers were often upset by this.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me !

  9. Jensen finally puts this one to rest as he confirmed to me last week.  It is interesting how these…

  10. So there were two really big pieces of Microsoft news last week, that were talked about on practically…

  11. Thanks for the latest automated "[Jensen Harris: An Office User Interface Blog] – Comment :: Reality Check".

    I’m tempted to say that *I* heard that MSoft was going to Tie A Yellow Ribbon ….

    Something that has been bugging me about the ribbon, fodder for your grist mill should you choose, is making the Addin tab (or any other tab) the default.

    I wrote that up yesterday at http://microsoftoffice2007.blogspot.com/ titled "Asking for a default ribbon"

  12. Andre says:

    Only someone who has never used Office 2007 would believe that Microsoft drops the Ribbon.

    I’m using a 3rd party Ribbon control in my own app now and I never want to look back to the hundreds of grayed out menu items and toolbar buttons.

  13. Jonne says:

    @Charlie Williams

    Yes Charlie, the Ribbon is being replaced by a gigantic tooltip, and Earth is being invaded by the Marsians.

  14. A User says:

    >> Honestly, I love that people are excited by Office 2007.

    Don’t let it go to your head. People also get very excited when fire, flood, or earthquake strike close to home. ; )

    >> What we had considered to be a relatively minor, if nice, improvement to the way Ribbon minimization works turned into rampant speculation on the ‘net …

    Don’t take it personally. 80% of everything out there is execrable. Your blog is top tier. Anybody who editorializes on the 2007 UI without reading it is a fool.

  15. Step says:

    It seems all of us regular readers had the same response when we saw the reports last week:  Where’d they get that?  That’s not right!  Don’t these people fact-check at all?!

    Thanks again for keeping us updated, and improving the product.  I’m really looking forward to the final release.  It’s a good idea on this one to have a response to the misinformation of last week.  Hopefully a few more people will learn to check sources and double-check facts…

  16. Glen C. says:

    This may not be totally on topic, but I do have to say I love what your guys are doing with the interface. Beautiful and functional, well done. Hell, I’ll pay for it just to support you and your team for making it awesome.

    When I heard they were dropping the ribbon I was really sad, but of course all is well. Rock on.

  17. So there were two really big pieces of Microsoft news last week, that were talked about on practically

  18. Man, I could have predicted this.  In fact, in a way I did.  It just so happens, however, that I thought it would be Microsoft (um, that is American Microsoft, I guess) who would announce the persistent collapsed ribbon as the "legacy" configuration for reluctant business customers.

    Still, I’m sorry you had to deal with this Jensen.  The viral nature of the media is, for what sad comfort it may provide, not limited to the web.  I’ve referred people to your blog in the past and will continue to do so.

  19. Jack says:

    Thanks for clearing this up. I remember reading the ridiculous headline in Digg and thinking, "Jensen has blogged way too much about the Ribbon to have it simply drop from Office. There’ll eventually be a clarification on the blog."

  20. Borek says:

    Hi Jensen, I’m glad you corrected this but I still think you’re not completely honest.

    When you say "We improved the minimize feature in the upcoming Beta 2 Technical Refresh by making the minimize state persistent" you try to convince us that this was only a small technical change and that you made thousands of them. In fact, this has a huge impact on usability. In beta 2, working with minimized ribbon is not really an option but what actually happened in B2TR is the return of the menu concept, except that we don’t have grey vertical lists but colorful horizontal ribbons.

    This _is_ a major change and I’m bit surprised that you try to confuse this fact.

  21. Thanks for setting the story straight. Just posted up a piece on my blog pointing back here.

  22. I constatly feel embarassed for our Media here in Australia. It has long since stopped being about the News and being all about their opinion of the news.

    Having whinged about them, let me just say that the Ribbon is to notch work. Everyone i have shown/demonstrated it to has loved the whole concept of it.

    Not only that, this blog has really opened my eyes to all the consideration that goes into the smallest details. Fantastic!!

  23. @Borek: "This _is_ a major change and I’m bit surprised that you try to confuse this fact."

    This *is* a big change from an usability point of view *and* from that specific feature point f view (from unusable to usable), but that’s not the point of the correction.

    The point here is that "Ribbon has been cutted off": clearly a *feature* allowing to use Ribbon in a minimized state is just a *small* improvement in the huge Ribbon redesign project.

    Also, that feature was conceptually there since the first release, so it was a mere matter of "how" and not "what".

    So, I feel strange when I see a comment that tells one of the developers that "you try to confuse this fact". 😉

    Don’t you think, now that you’ve read my comment, that the minimized changed behaviour IS a minor improvement.  

  24. Ave says:

    Internet journalists or news-sites simply copy each other without double-checking. Once a rumor like this starts somewhere on a major site, soon, all those news-sites will bring this "news" like it’s true. Kinda sad somewhere.

  25. Borek says:

    2 Folletto Malefico:

    From a technical standpoint, this is really a minor tweak but on the other hand it will totally change the way I’ll use Word. From my point of view, this "minor improvement" actually means a return of the traditional menu concept and honestly, I can’t imagine more important usability change at this late stage of a product life cycle.

    I don’t agree with you that "that feature was conceptually there since the first release". It was there *technically* – but the main (and only, as it appears) purpose of Ctrl+F1 was to minimize ribbon when you don’t need it or when the UI have to be scaled down (see http://blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/archive/2005/09/14/467126.aspx and http://blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/archive/2005/10/19/482631.aspx , which are the first articles about ribbon on this blog).

    To be short, I really don’t think, even after reading your comments, that the return of popping-up-menus concept is a minor change. It will completely change the way I’ll use Office 2007.

    P.S. My comments don’t have much in common with the main point of this article. Sorry for that.

  26. Lam says:

    Your excellent blog makes me interested in the product – previously, particularly with Office 2002, 2003, I (and countless other people, I’m sure) would be thinking something like — not again, yet another new version of Office with unknown new features – particularly as most see Office suites as something that has reached its zenith.

    This is most certainly not the case with Office 2007 — the new interface is stunning and the new features are easily accessible.  Best of all, communicating this information makes people excited about the product, and having feedback acted on so quickly by the developers certainly make for much happier users — rather than faced with a faceless "Microsoft", people can relate to the developers.

    Thus, it is a bit of a shame that the mainstream press sometimes seem like they are out to ‘catch out’ Microsoft – especially with something that is clearly inaccurate – and could’ve been sorted out easily with a email to you or another developer.

  27. Looks like the rumour mills have been in overdrive over the last few days. The most amusing that I have…

  28. Sebhelyesfarku says:

    Journalists are inbred morons.

  29. @ Borek:

    Even just from an usability pov, it isn’t a huge change since it’s an *addition* (mainly for heavy shortcut users, or "powerusers", or small screen users).

    Due to the fact it isn’t a change for everyone but a feature you enable, the Ribbon is still as it was, so the usability is completely unchanged… until you enable that feature (to save on-screen space). So it isn’t at all a return of popup menus: to make an example it’s like saying that the inclusion of Terminal in OSX is a "return to Unix", or that "the usability of OSX is turned back to CLI".

    A switchable, default off and non-must-to-do modality isn’t at all a change in usability, it is instead a specific mode of use, usable if you *prefer* it. Exactly this one was the initial concept of hiding the Ribbon and so in this iteraion they got it working well: the idea was already there.

  30. Keith Ryde says:

    One problem that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the behaviour of touchpad scrolling when using a laptop.  On my laptop touchpad scrolling does not work when the message, blog post etc is opened in Outlook 2007.  It works fine in the reading pane (or in IE7) but stops working if I open the message, post in a new window in Outlook.

    Probably just a quirk with my old dell laptop, but annoying just the same

  31. A User says:

    One reason this little tweak provoked such an absurd overreaction is that the ribbon is so big, prominent, loud, and in-your-face that some people just can’t see past it.  To someone who sees it as the only new feature in this version, the ability to turn it off is equivalent to rolling back to a prior version altogether.

    When we are all done laughing at these idiots, there is something to be learned from them:  This little episode is a case in point demonstrating that in fact the new UI is DISTRACTING.

  32. @ A User: "This little episode is a case in point demonstrating that in fact the new UI is DISTRACTING."

    Pardon? Apart from the fact that the case isn’t related with this statement… why? Less buttons, more clearly positioned features and good discoverability… distracting?

    Please argument… without any more explanation it just seems a "flame" line. 😉

  33. A User says:

    Folletto – Pardon? Perhaps you have not been following this blog long enough to recognize this as a brief note in a longer conversation.  In this conversation I have made both critical and laudatory comments, and have offered suggestions which may even have been taken by some to be constructive.

    There has been a running discussion of this characteristic of the UI.  My observation here may have been overly abstract (which I am frequently guilty of) in overloading two notions of "distraction" from the context of the discussion.  So, without intending to be argumentative, I offer here some clarification:

    – Visually Distracting – Let me add a little to the discussion of visual distraction by noting a remarkably powerful feature of the human vision system:  it integrates two distinct channels that are virtually (not really) Fourier transforms of each other.  One has high resolution in the frequency domain, and the other has high resolution in the spatial domain.  As a consequence of how the former color vision works, six or eight different shades of blue background in the “blue theme” fight for attention.  As a consequence of how the latter detail vision works, juxtaposition of black-on-white with white-on-black in the “black theme” confuses the eye.  This is only one source of distraction in the UI.  While the “silver theme” offers a compromise by refraining from hammering one channel or the other, it still uses a lot of gradations that do not signify much.  Whether this is a good compromise is a matter of opinion and preference.

    I think the real compromise is between the understandable desire of the designer to “make it pop” and the preference of some users that it “stay in the background” because of the signal-to-noise problem.  The information in a signal is found in “the difference that makes a difference.”  The eye is drawn to search for information in visually prominent features even after the mind has decided they have little information content, and is trying to focus on the work at hand elsewhere.

    – Conceptually Distracting – An inevitable challenge with anything new is that the newness itself captures attention, which can distract from what is actually going on.  (This effect can be exploited by marketing initiatives that emphasize newness when nothing is actually going on, as with the new improved box of detergent that is just the old detergent in a new box.)  It is also inevitable that when something new requires a bit of relearning, as when affordances are rearranged, regrouped, and relabeled, it introduces some distracting confusion.  Of course, these are transitory effects.  The distraction fades as one gains familiarity, except for those who never get it.

    I can imagine some simple minded “journalists” may have been so fixated on the newness of it all that the merest hint, that in some respects it might work more or less like it used to, led them to conclude it has all been undone.  (I will not elaborate on reporters who become distracted by events, or by prejudices, from the concept of responsible reporting.)

    – In Conclusion – My comment yesterday, and above, suggesting that the distracting visual characteristics of the UI can exacerbate conceptual distraction, was not intended as a literal description of, or conjecture about, the thought processes of the guilty parties. I imagine rumor mongers will continue to do their thing in any event, although I do consider such persons to be literally distracted, as well as distracting.  Rather, I intended a cautionary illustration of how “merely” aesthetic considerations can have objective consequences.  This is the “relation to the case” that you are looking for – an obliquely allegorical one.

    Where my comments have often used peculiar, sometimes clumsy, rhetorical devices, I understand it can be, well, distracting.  But I honestly do not think it detracts from the fine quality of the discussion on this excellent blog.

  34. Francis says:

    A User: Some would argue that inverting the user interface relative to the document window actually draws attention to the latter. When the page is beamingly white, the black UI recedes into the background. Think of a crow that spots a shred of tin foil on asphalt, or a nightime driver seeing oncoming headlights.

  35. A User says:

    Jensen – We are getting off topic here. Please speak up if it bothers you.

    Francis – What you say is true.  Hence a matte black frame on a monitor or TV works well.  But there is another layer.  Consider the crow reading black lettering on that bit of tinfoil in an expanse of asphalt.  Or, somewhat extreme but closer to ordinary experience, consider those headlights on a black car against a bright horizon.

    My issue has more to do with the situation when the ribbon is displayed, where there are two aspects I find troublesome.  The most conspicuous is big whitish blobs within the black frame, which compete with the document area for attention and do not allow the frame to recede into the background.  The other is more subtle:  Reading white text on a black background is made slightly less efficient by close proximity to a large white blob.  (This is mostly related to the headlight example, but I think it is partly due to low level texture detection being impaired so it can not contribute to letter and word recognition. I could be wrong.)

    The “classic” UI made it easy enough to spot controls and recognize groupings while using only one background color for all the menus, toolbars, window frames, etc.  The new UI uses visually prominent effects to call attention to various groupings and features. It is all this calling for attention that I find noisy and distracting.

    In the spectrum between distinctive enough to readily convey information, and striking enough to demand attention, it is a matter of degree, but I think the new UI goes too far.  I do not think it can be justified in terms of discoverability, because I never met anyone who failed to locate the classic menu on the screen.

    I do recognize, however, that some people actually prefer to work in a noisy environment. The psychology of this is a mystery to me, but may have something to do with greater exertion when focusing attention having the effect of deepening concentration.  I find quite the opposite.

  36. ehealthewealth says:

    What R U folks, nuts?!  Plus I went to download again this Office 2007, I’d tried twice before couple weeks back to no avail. Now there’s a small two pence ha’ penny charge!

    Come now folks, come come, Yahoo done put us to the grumble but Jesus H, R U nuts now?

  37. Peter Menadue says:

    Jensen,

    This is the best blog around Office 2007 – well done and keep up the good work!

    Peter

  38. @ A User: I’m following this blog since a long time ago, but I don’t follow as deeply the comments here 😉

    I noticed a post a bit "harsh" and I noted it: the explanation made it now a good point to discuss. :)

    Now that I understand how it is "distracting" for you, I think that the *most* part in this game is played by its new-ness. It is new, so it makes us talking. The paper under that part is always the same since the invention of the paper… so isn’t something we speak about.

    I might add that even if I think about themes and layout as two entities, I see that they are of course related in the final product. I’m saying this because even if Ribbon is really "colourful" and, maybe, distracting, I also notice that the plethora of icons of the "classic" UI made this *less* distracting.

    Or, better: Ribbon is better in so many aspects that gaining a point in "distracting" is, in the end, a really margina issue that is handled, by another pov, right by the feature discussed in this blog post.

    I might add: nice discussion. 😉

  39. Jensen finally puts this one to rest as he confirmed to me last week. It is interesting how these things

  40. It was with a bit of surprise that I read a flurry of stories on Friday with breathless headlines like "Microsoft backs off the Ribbon in Office 2007!" and "Microsoft Cuts Office 2007 Ribbon!" Part of working at a company like Microsoft