Office 12

User-customisable toolbars have always been a nightmare for support personnel. When you’re trying to explain to a user how to do something, you often have to tell them to click a particular tool on the toolbar. If they’ve hidden that toolbar, moved it or changed the tools on it, you can spend a lot of time playing ‘hunt the tool’. And since menus and toolbars were merged into a single unified command system, users have been able to twiddle with menus as well as toolbars, and sometimes they do stupid things such as dragging the main menu until it floats, then closing it or pushing it right off the screen.

In short, while some people made good use of the opportunities to customise the user interface of Office applications, a lot just got confused. With Office 2003, Microsoft introduced the Customer Experience Improvement Programme (Help | Customer Feedback Options…). The first time they started up Office 2003, users were asked if they minded Microsoft collecting anonymous data about how they used the applications. Along with tracking errors, performance and hardware specifications, this program reported how users were customising their toolbars and menus. Microsoft discovered that the majority didn’t customise anything, and that of those that did many of their customisations could only be classified as ‘accidental’ (like dragging the main menu onto the side of the window). The number of people who deliberately customise menus and toolbars is actually very small.

The ‘personalised’ adaptive menu and toolbar system had another serious drawback: for many users, their menus would get shorter and shorter over time. The user would look for a command and not see it on any of these short menus, and didn’t wait for the menu to expand itself because they were in a hurry. They didn’t understand the double down-chevron at the bottom of the menus either. So, not being able to find the command they wanted, they just scratched their heads and decided that the application didn’t have that function, even though they could have sworn they’d used it six weeks ago. This problem has got so bad that the majority of requests Microsoft now receives for Office are for features that are already there but can’t be found by the users.

So, with the applications growing in complexity and users unable to find the features they need, Microsoft decided it needed a radical rethink of the UI. One aim was to give the user one place to look for all the commands. If it isn’t on the ribbon, it isn’t in the application. Another aim was to group the commands more logically. The current arrangement of menus in Word – File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools, Table, Windows, Help – sounds logical, but why is Page Setup on the File menu and not the Format menu, for example, and why isn’t the option to insert a table on the Insert menu when the tool is actually called Insert Table? In Word 12, the tabs on the ribbon will probably be called Write, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review. There will still be a File menu to deal with creating, saving, printing and emailing documents, and altering application preferences, but all commands associated with the content of the document will appear on the ribbon. Interestingly, the current View menu seems destined to disappear altogether and is replaced by an enhanced status bar at the bottom of the window, which will show the current page number, a continuously updated word count, buttons for selecting the view style (normal, page layout, outline, web layout) and a slider control for the zoom percentage.

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