In my recent "Hot or Not" survey, the ribbon toolbar was rated the least popular of 19 features. In addition, based on what I've read in several online discussion groups, it appears that users have a love-hate relationship with this dramatic new productivity feature, which is available in MindManager and NovaMind.
I'm not quite sure what all of the consternation is about. I have come to really like the ribbon toolbar, and here's why:
Microsoft did a lot of usability research on the ribbon toolbar (what they call the Fluent UI) before rolling it out in Office 2007 suite. Click here for more details on Microsoft's thinking behind this interface innovation. Some solid thinking went into what is arguably the biggest advance in software interfaces in some time. The key points of Microsoft's backgrounder are these:
Why was a new interface needed? “In previous releases of Microsoft Office applications, people used a system of menus, toolbars, task panes, and dialog boxes to get their work done. This system worked well when the applications had a limited number of commands. Now that the programs do so much more, the menus and toolbars system does not work as well. Too many program features are too hard for many users to find.”
What are the benefits of tabs in the ribbon UI? “The tabs on the ribbon display the commands that are most relevant for each of the task areas in the applications… These tabs simplify accessing application features because they organize the commands in a way that corresponds directly to the tasks people perform in these applications.”
The big button. In earlier versions of Office, file-level features were mixed in with authoring features in the suite’s menus and toolbars. The big button in the upper left corner of programs with the ribbon toolbar now centralizes everything you can do with a document in one place, such as share it, protect it, print it, publish it and send it. “It simplifies the core authoring scenarios and allows the ribbon to focus on creating great documents.” This applies in MindManager and NovaMind as well.
More visual cues help you to see what you can do. In the new ribbon toolbars, the buttons tend to be larger and more visual, depicting to a greater extent what will happen when you click them (a good example is the "topic shape" or "growth direction" buttons in the format menu of MindManager). Microsoft calls the larger, more detailed drop-down lists in the new ribbon UI “galleries.” They replace complex dialog boxes with numerous options in older versions of the Office applications with drop-downs that actually show you what will happen if you invoke them. According to Microsoft, galleries simplify the process of producing professional looking work.
In my opinion, the ribbon toolbar is much more driven by functionality than the old toolbar design was, especially in MindManager and NovaMind. With the new toolbar design, you first consider what it is you want to do (such as format map topics) and click that command. This exposes a toolbar populated with commands and functions that you can carry out related to that general task. Meanwhile, the rest of the toolbar remains hidden behind the other tabs, reducing visual clutter. I think this is far superior to the old fashioned arbitrary horizontal rows of toolbar buttons. Was the old style of toolbar familiar? Definitely. Was it logical? More often than not, no.
I believe that a large number of people hate the ribbon toolbar design because it's simply different. They've gotten used to the locations of the commands and buttons they use in their old software, and they don’t want it changed, dammit! But I'm confident that once users get over the initial dislocation (“Where the hell did that button go??”), a large number of users will come to really enjoy the productivity increase that the ribbon toolbar makes possible.