Dejà vu again

The Ribbon seems to be best fitted to those applications that can do a great many different things to a small number of different document types. Excel, for instance, has worksheets and charts as its document types, whereas Word really only has one type – the Word Document. Outlook is unusual as it can manipulate mail items, appointments, contacts, notes, tasks and so on, but each of these different document types gets its own Ribbon with distinctly different tabs and tools. I personally don’t think that Access fits at all well with the Ribbon interface, but perhaps it will get better in Office 14, planning for which is now under way. The main problem is that there are too many instances in Access where virtually all the tabs either disappear or have their tools greyed out, and this really isn’t the way a Ribbon is meant to operate. It will be interesting to see, once the guidelines are fully published, whether Access will actually meet all the conditions.

Dejà vu again

There are 16 pages alone on how the Ribbon should resize itself, on changing tools from large icons to small ones, then removing their text and grouping them. There’s more guidance still about how the tabs should squash together, grow separators and whether and how you can truncate the tab name. While there’s no doubt that a few companies will write their own routines for a Ribbon-like interface, it would be a lot easier and cheaper for most companies to buy in a set of tools that someone else has already written – I’ve counted seven on ComponentSource already. For years now, we here at MillStream Designs have been using the NetAdvantage suite of controls from Infragistics in the applications we design, and the 2006 volume 3 edition brings with it support for the Office 2007 look-and-feel, including the Ribbon. Now we need to decide whether the current or next applications we design will benefit from it or not. Certainly, many of the smaller applications would simply be swamped by the Ribbon UI – if you can’t at least half-fill a couple of tabs with tools, you’d be better sticking with classic menus and toolbars.

One of the applications we’re just starting on is a Line of Business application, and a quick count reveals more than 50 tools that are required in the shell of this application before we even get to the actual business functions. Two of these shell functions will be viewers for PDF and DWG files, and both will be provided via ActiveX controls by Adobe and VectorDraw – both of which can provide their own toolbars. However, allowing someone else’s idea of how a toolbar should look inside our application can be a bit jarring on the eyes, and may cause our users to question why some toolbars look different from others. We also have the problem that toolbars built into certain controls will not merge nicely with the other toolbars in the application: they remain resolutely stuck to their parent control rather than taking their proper place on the main window. So, for usability and visual consistency, we’re going to have to create a new toolbar, with all the relevant buttons, to go with these controls. If we’re going to go to all that trouble, how much more difficult could it be to use the Ribbon look-and-feel?

Well, quite a bit actually. To put a button onto a toolbar, you just have to give it a name and a small icon (and, if you want, you can also define a ToolTip for it). To put a button onto a Ribbon, you have to define a tab, a group, give the button a name, a small icon, a large icon, a SuperToolTip – complete with title, text and possibly an image – and you have to define when this button will collapse from large to small, when it will lose its text and how it will group itself with the other buttons once it’s collapsed. As you can see, there’s a lot more work in creating a Ribbon interface and, when the designers and programmers have finished their work, it all has to be tested as well. So that leads us to a third question – is it worth it?

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