What it is: Back in 2007, Microsoft introduced the Ribbon user interface for Office 2007.
Designing good user interfaces isn’t easy because what one person thinks is easy, another person thinks is hard. Even worse, power users want advanced features while novices want simplicity. How do you combine simplicity with power? Usually you don’t except through unwieldy compromises.
When Microsoft released Office 2003, they relied on pull-down menus. While pull-down menus were a giant leap forward over command-line interfaces that required you to precisely type exact commands, pull-down menus soon bogged down with multiple submenus buried within too many pul-down menus. Soon trying to find a particular command became so clumsy that Microsoft soon discovered that people clamored for features in Office 2003, not realizing that those features were already available but hidden within pull-down menus.
In 2007, Microsoft decided on a radical solution by ditching pull-down menus and embracing the Ribbon user interface. The idea behind the Ribbon user interface is to place commands as icons on various tabs. By clicking on a tab, you could view different groups of related icons representing similar types of commands. In theory, this seemed to work and in practice, many people have discovered that the Ribbon user interface does work more efficiently than traditional pull-down menus.
The big problem is that now the Ribbon user interface has become cluttered and unwieldy. The promise of the Ribbon interface was to put similar commands on the screen so you can easily choose the one you want. The drawback is that Ribbon tabs often contain so many icons that trying to decipher which icon represents which command is confusing and difficult.
Even worse, not all commands can be shown on the Ribbon tabs, which means many advanced commands remain hidden out of sight. To find these advanced commands, you often have to open a dialog box, which requiring clicking a tiny icon within a group of related commands on a Ribbon tab.
Sound confusing? It is, and that’s the drawback of the Ribbon interface. Another drawback is that you may expect a command to appear on one tab but when it doesn’t, you may have no idea which tab it appears on or whether it appears on any tab at all.
So the Ribbon interface has made some tasks easier but also made some tasks more difficult. Overall, the Ribbon interface is still controversial with some people loving it, others tolerating it, and still many others (often power users) still despising it.
On the Macintosh, Microsoft’s software didn’t drop pull-down menus altogether. Instead, they offer both pull-down menus and the Ribbon interface so you can choose which user interface you like best. For Windows, Microsoft has forced the Ribbon interface on people, which has contributed to the general confusion on using Windows programs.
As more Windows programs adopt the Ribbon interface, it’s becoming more comfortable and familiar to more people. Still, the Ribbon interface can’t be called a complete success, nor a complete failure. It’s stuck somewhere in between with its gradually growing layer of complexity with icons that display a top and bottom option.
If you click the bottom option, you often get a menu of additional commands but if you click the top option, you often choose the last chosen command from that icon. If that last sentence sounds confusing, then you know why the Ribbon interface still confuses people.
Microsoft made a bold move with the Ribbon interface to make more features readily available to users. Yet this Ribbon interface was designed for desktop computing use in 2007. Now that the world has shifted to mobile, the Ribbon interface still works, but will it become a standard like pull-down menus?
Both Windows and macOS adopted pull-down menus along with Linux. Now Windows predominantly relies on the Ribbon interface while macOS and Linux still rely on pull-down menus. The chances that macOS and Linux will adopt the Ribbon interface remains slim. For mobile devices like tablets, the Ribbon interface might still work, but for smartphones that offer smaller screens, the Ribbon interface may still be too clumsy.
Ultimately the Ribbon interface looks like it will remain stuck on the Windows desktop but migrate no further. That fact alone should suggest that the Ribbon interface isn’t as useful as its designers had originally hoped it would be.