the expert vs newbie fallacy

The idea of the MacRibbon causes consteration amongst some people. The latest example is from the Apple Core blog on ZDNet, which a blog post with the link-bait title Oh the horror! Why is Microsoft pushing the hated Windows Ribbon for Office:Mac? He quotes from my blog post why is Office:Mac getting the Ribbon?

There are several fallacies in this article (including the perplexing one that Mac users who want the Ribbon have somehow migrated to Redmond and Mountain View), but the sentence that I find the most striking is this one:

Office:Mac, like a number of other recent Mac OS X programs and especially Web-based apps, are making trade-offs in their application interfaces that ding power users and kowtow to the entry-level part of the market.

The most basic fallacy is that one can meaningfully define "entry-level users" and "power users". With applications as deep as the Office apps, defining entry-level versus power is
all but impossible. Do you determine it simply in terms of number of hours that they use the app in a week? Or do you define it in terms of features used? If a Word user does tables of contents and footnotes all the time, but has never updated their Normal template, are they a power user? If a PowerPoint user regularly creates decks that are 100+ slides but they only contain bullet points and pictures, are they a power user? Do we simply rely on their own self-selection as a power user? And let's not forget that, even if we agree that someone is a power user for one app, that doesn't necessarily make them a power user for the other apps. Being able to make awesome pivot tables in Excel doesn't mean that you know how to make animations in PowerPoint.

Another fallacy is that something done for the benefit of "entry-level users" must be detrimental to "power users". Why is there an assumption that power users are so fragile that they can't cope with a change? There was certainly some cases for Windows Office where long-time users complained because they had trouble finding things, but the vast majority of users were able to adapt and use the new UI at least as well as they had been using the previous UI. For example, research conducted by the Windows Office team shows that Office 2003 users regularly access 23 core features. With the Ribbon in Office 2007, that number climbs to 60-70 [1]. That's three times more features used, and that's not just from entry-level users. Being able to make a threefold improvement in what users regularly use when left to their own devices is unprecedented.

The final fallacy in this statement is that the MacRibbon "kowtows" to entry-level users. In the research that my team has done, we have brought in a broad spectrum of Mac users at varying levels of ability with our applications. Looking over the participants for one of the PowerPoint studies that my team has conducted conducted, one guy has been using PowerPoint since Version 3. Another user said that she spent at least 20 hours per week using the application to create or update presentations. If you were to try to define "power PowerPoint user", your definition would have to be able to encompass both of these people.

The MacRibbon is a change. Change in and of itself is neither inherently good nor bad, it's just change. We'll be sharing more about it in the coming months. I hope that you'll find, as we've seen so far, that the MacRibbon is a positive change that drastically improves productivity.

[1] That information was published in an article in Wired Magazine: Blue Ribbon Debut for Office 2007.

Comments (13)

  1. R. Mansfield says:

    Nadyne, you state "Change in and of itself is neither inherently good nor bad, it’s just change." Comma splice aside, that doesn’t change the fact that some changes are simply not for the better.

    Since the ribbon is now the default interface on the Windows version of Office apps, I can understand your company’s concern about some level of feature parity between Windows and Mac versions. And for the switcher or even the person going back and forth between platforms, I understand where a common interface will be helpful.

    What I’ve never understood about the ribbon–from the moment I first saw it in Office 2007 for Windows–is its placement. To me it makes no sense to place it near the top of the screen since over the past few years, computer screens have become wider, not taller. The ribbon takes up more vertical screen real estate than I, and presumably many users, care for.

    I’ve always thought that the Mac Office Formatting Pallet, placed to the side of the main window was a much better idea. It would have even made sense to me if the original designers of the ribbon for the Windows version of Office had placed it to the left or right of the main window.

    For the record, I’m not a Microsoft hater, and as a regular reader of the MacBU blogs, I understand that you folks are honest-to-goodness Mac users. However, I hope that Office 2011 doesn’t repeat the same kind of mistakes that Microsoft made in 1993 when trying too hard to make the Mac version of Word like the Windows version.

    Since from screenshots it looks like the pallet will still exist in Word/Mac 2011 (an icon for the formatting pallet is clearly visible), I’m hopeful that users will have a choice as to which interface to use. That would be a very good compromise for those who want to use the ribbon and those of us who probably don’t.

  2. I answered your question in my previous blog post about why we’re getting the Ribbon.  To quote myself:

    "One of the questions that we get asked about the MacRibbon is why it takes up vertical screen real estate at all. It’s about how people work. If you’re on a widescreen monitor, windows off to the side have the "out of sight, out of mind" problem. You’re so focused on your content that’s right in front of you that you don’t look the few inches over to your right to see what’s happening in the Toolbox. Moving the same features out of the Formatting Palette or Toolbox and into the Ribbon has drastically increased their discoverability, and makes it easier for you to get your work done."

    And if you’re going to complain about comma splices, you should make sure that you are unassailable in your own grammar and usage. 🙂  A pallet is a physical structure that you use to transport other things.  A palette is something that shows you a range of options.

  3. R. Mansfield says:


    Touché in regard to grammar issues. Good catch.

    Again, I hope that we simply have some choice in the way we can lay out our workspace in Word and other Office apps. After spending some time with Word 2007 for Windows, the option on the Mac to keep the formatting palette (spelled correctly this time!) and the traditional toolbars would be preferable to me, and I presume, some other users. Keeping both the ribbon and the formatting palette as an option would please everyone.

  4. I strongly prefer the Mac for most things.  For MS Word, though, which I use often, I use Word 2007 running in Parallels.  I have both the Mac and the Windows version, and the Windows version serves me much better than does the Mac version.

    I welcome the Ribbon to the Mac.  I think when working with many styles it is easier, and I think having it on the top of the screen makes sense.  On the Windows version, when I want more room, I just double-click a tab.  It is easier to scan a horizontal control widget than a vertical one…

    Just wanted to add my voice as someone very happy with the direction MS is taking MS Word on the Mac.  I am sure you will get enough people complaining… always good to hear of someone who is happy.

  5. Johnny Dragon says:

    Comma splice? I didn’t get it.

    It looks right to me.

    Ribbon, or no ribbon: that is the question.

    After how long will power users (or long time users) of Office get accustomed to the ribbon?

  6. Charlie says:

    hummmm, and now for Messenger A/V… where’s the beta?

  7. Charlie – You do understand that posting here every week or so isn’t going to make the beta appear any faster, right?  

    Johnny – He’s right, there is a comma splice.  This is the offending sentence:

    "Change in and of itself is neither inherently good nor bad, it’s just change."

    The two clauses here are independent, and so it’s a comma splice.  

    Grammarians can and will argue about whether all comma splices are bad.  Some grammarians would say that my sentence was fine, both because the second clause is so short and because this is informal writing.  For example, even the most staunch of grammarians wouldn’t complain about the two comma splices in "I came, I saw, I conquered", since the length of the clauses is such that the semicolon would be ridiculous.  

    Anyway, leaving grammar aside, your question about how long it takes existing users to get accustomed to the MacRibbon is one that my team continues to study.  Early results are quite positive, and we’re planning on additional field work to learn more here.

  8. Charlie says:

    Hum, yes. Nadyne, another three months delay?

  9. You also understand that it’s March 17, and that there’s two weeks left in the month?

  10. I believe I can rephrase the original quoted statement in a way that retains its original meaning and doesn’t fall into the expert/newbie fallacy you describe:

    Long-time users of Mac Office who had devoted serious time to habitualizing getting to the various arcane locations where you can change important settings have been dinged to kowtow to those who had not.

    It took a long time to amass working knowledge of Mac Office (or Win Office) _because_ it was a labyrinthine navigation of toolbars or menu items and property dialogs to get the settings you wanted for your documents/presentations/spreadsheets. This knowledge usually was accompanied by frustration and head-on-keyboard banging when you knew you wanted to tweak something, and presumed it must be there to be tweaked, if only you could find it or control it correctly.

    Well, these people are doubly-hosed. First, they performed in our dog-and-pony show and worked with our software anyway. Second, now that things are in different places, they have to _unlearn the habits_. It’s not just a matter of finding the new places to do what you did previously. That is partially easier, as the ribbon does provide more of the basic functionality in an easier-to-use format, but it doesn’t do everything, and you still have the head-on-keyboard sessions where you have to find the new arcane place that old setting lives now. Unlearning habits takes a lot of time, and recalls the now-wasted frustrating effort you had made.

    So, yes, the "lightweight" users or the new-to-the-suite users are better off, finding our functionality more discoverable. In terms of the benefit to the world, that’s probably fairly high, as I expect that the number of lightweight users _greatly_ exceed the so-called power users. But it is not as if it is not without cost beyond the research and development done by the Office UI and UE teams — part of it is being borne on the backs of us older users, myself included.

  11. Anon Emouse says:

    Quote "Change in and of itself is neither inherently good nor bad, it’s just change."



  12. Anon Emouse says:

    Quote: "Change in and of itself is neither inherently good nor bad, it’s just change."

    A lack of choice is bad.

    Forcing a UI on everyone is bad.

    No Classic Interface is bad.

    Hours of "relearning" x 100 million is bad.

    Breaking user familiarity is bad.


  13. Since the menus are still there, and of course we haven’t done anything with keyboard shortcuts, the learning curve isn’t nearly as steep as you might think.

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