Redesigning the Office 2010 Ribbon

There’s a law called Fitts’ Law – to get mathematical it’s T = a+b log2(1+D/W), where T = time to target, a = start time, b = speed, D = distance to target and W = width of target – which states that large objects close to you are easier to hit than small objects that are further away.

Redesigning the Office 2010 Ribbon

Now this may seem like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, but it’s actually rather important when it comes to the interaction of humans with computers via a pointing device such as a mouse.

It implies that if a button you’re aiming for is large then it takes not just less time but far less time to click on, because you don’t have to aim so carefully. If, on the other hand, your target is one edge of the screen, the size of the target becomes effectively infinite because the mouse pointer is constrained to stay within the screen, so it becomes impossible to miss.

Buttons in the corner of the screen are therefore doubly easy to hit, because you just slam the mouse towards that corner and – providing you don’t stop short – you’re guaranteed to hit them.

Fitts’ law was consulted when designing the Start button in Windows Vista and Windows 7 – although that button appears to be round, its active area is actually square and extends all the way into the corner of the screen.

When Office 2007 was being designed, the same reasoning was used for the design of its Office button – that round orb that took over the functions of the File menu. Fitts’ law suggested it would be easier to hit if it took over the whole North West corner of the application, and to mirror the round Start button in Windows itself was thought to be good for consistency.

The orb looks like a decorative logo, and even making it light up when you roll the mouse pointer over it wasn’t enough to signify to many people that it’s an active control that you should click on

From a usability standpoint it turned out to be one of the worst decisions Microsoft has made in recent years. It looks like a decorative logo, and even making it light up when you roll the mouse pointer over it wasn’t enough to signify to many people that it’s an active control that you should click on.

So when these people came to save or print their first document from a newly installed Office 2007, they hunted around for the “File” menu and couldn’t find it anywhere. Frustration turned to anger, which they then directed at the new Ribbon interface, denouncing it as the devil’s work, a scourge and a pestilence.

After only a couple of such annoying head-scratching incidents, most people would eventually work out that anything to do with printing, saving or sharing documents was now under this Office button, but it seems that a significant proportion of users don’t think that way, so that even after two and a half years they’re still looking for a “File” menu and Microsoft has finally given in to the pressure and brought it back. Shades of the New Coke debacle.

Starting in Office 2010 Technical Preview, Microsoft shrunk the round Office button and moved it into line with the rest of the tabs, also adding a down-arrow to signal to people they should click it. But apparently this still wasn’t enough of a cue, so for the second beta release the Office logo was replaced by “File”.

Clicking it will still take you into Backstage View (essentially the area that tells you everything you need to know about a document, as well as offering commands such as Save and Print), but the rest of the Ribbon tabs remain visible so that it’s more obvious how to get back to your document.

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