Behind the Scenes: Ribbon UIs – Love Them or Hate Them?


Heard of Marmite? It’s a sticky, dark brown paste with a distinctive, powerful flavor. The spread is so distinctive that the British nation falls into two camps – those that LOVE it, and those that HATE it. Ribbon UIs, first introduced in Windows-based applications and now used in PTC software, are a lot like Marmite.

Microsoft says these on-screen, highly graphical controls go great on toast. “Ribbons are the modern way to help users find, understand, and use commands efficiently and directly—with a minimum number of clicks.”  Microsoft promises that ribbons reduce trial-and-error work and cut the need for help.

Ribbon UI

Others think ribbons’ goodness is overrated. Ribbons take “too much time and patience to learn.” And the large icons are distracting.

So it’s not surprising that when PTC decided for ribbons on its product suite, a Marmite-like debate followed. [Ed – Follow the thread on the Planet PTC Community here.]  That’s why I asked Neil Potter, Director of Product Design and Usability for Creo, to explain the background:

GH: The ribbon UIs introduced by Microsoft have been received with mixed reactions- why do you think the company introduced the approach?

Potter: There are many layers of rationale behind the Fluent UI design [Ed. – that’s what Microsoft calls it], but I’d summarize it as feature discoverability, task-centered arrangement, visual land-marking, and overall improvement in accommodating ever-expanding product capability. There is also a simple business desire to offer modernized product appeal and head-off the constant user experience battering from the likes of Apple and the growing intrigue about Google’s aspirations.

“If the user can’t find it, the function doesn’t exist.” Constant enhancement requests from users for features that were already present in their products indicated to Microsoft that the menu bar based UI structure had become far too wide, deep, and cumbersome. Features were buried to the point that users either couldn’t find them or had, understandably, become weary of mining the Menu system in search of them. The first-level presentation and UI navigation had been out-grown by the weight of functionality and needed an overhaul.

GH: What’s the trade-off with the ribbon approach?

Potter: Some argue that the ribbon hogs more screen real-estate, but Microsoft has figures that show the ribbon actually uses less screen real estate when compared to the combined total of a menu bar plus average user’s persistent toolbar arrangement. And, of course, users can choose to collapse the main ribbon – such that it appears only on-demand – and rely on the quick access toolbar (QAT), which is fully customizable.

GH: Did we see the same thing with PTC products?

Potter: We’ve seen the same in recent years. Even with the introduction of Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire, where we were migrating from a mix of proprietary Menu Manger and the “ODUI” to the Microsoft menu bar, tool bar and “Dashboard” UI, the release garnered excited exclamations about great new functionality. But , actually, the new arrangement merely exposed or promoted existing capability for those users. A ribbon UI now offers even greater opportunity in this regard.

GH: The ribbon can now be found on many software products, is it a new standard?

Potter: In Microsoft Office 2007 the ribbon interface was added to the main Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint applications. Then with Microsoft Office 2010, the Ribbon was introduced across ALL Office applications. The ribbon UI has also begun to be implemented in other Microsoft software like Windows, SQL Server, and Dynamics CRM 2011. The Windows 7 applications Paint and WordPad now use a ribbon-based UI. Although we can’t speak for Microsoft directly, I think we can safely presume there are no plans to retract the UI. So yes, it’s the new standard for the Microsoft platform, albeit still a young one. It will, of course, continue to be developed and enhanced.

GH: And what’s been the reaction to the ribbons introduced in PTC’s products?

Potter: Not unexpectedly, it’s generated some lively debate. We originally introduced a ribbon-style UI in the Creo Elements/Pro 5.0 Detailing application. While the overall reaction has been generally positive, we have received a few specific concerns from  some users regarding particular aspects of workflow. It’s important to recognize, though, that many of these issues are not about the ribbon UI concept itself. And we are continuing to work on improvements to the issues raised.

GH: What types of users does the ribbon UI strategy help?

Potter: I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to hear me say it will benefit all users. Any UI redesign, whatever the overall benefits, represents change to an existing user. Change to a professional trying to get their job done is at best inconvenient. And depending on where a particular user sits on the scale from novice to battle-hardened, power-user, there will be variation in the degree of impact that change has.

Obviously, the enormous benefit in adopting an industry standard UI is that so many users are able to leverage their familiarity with other Fluent-based products – commonly the Microsoft Office products themselves – and will hit the ground running with Creo apps. Novice users can immediately focus their learning on the particular nature and capabilities of our applications without distraction from unfamiliar UI presentation or navigation. At the other end of the scale, power users should need fewer home-brewed short cuts, programs, workarounds, etc. to carry out everyday tasks.

GH: What’s the strategy for Creo apps and the ribbon UIs?

Potter: The Creo vision and strategy calls for us to step up ease of use – and there are fundamental ways to make that happen. First, we are breaking up complex monolithic CAD products into smaller, focused apps, which, in itself will offer a cleaner, uncluttered environment. That’s the technology breakthrough of Creo AnyRole Apps – use the Creo app that best meets your needs. Each of these apps will present a tailored role or function-centered UI such that they align with recognized engineering disciplines. Beyond that their UIs will adhere to the Microsoft Fluent UI Guidelines.

GH: You’ve been running Usability Labs for Creo – what’s been the reaction to ribbons?

Potter: Yes, we’ve been running usability labs with Creo for over a year. The feedback has been consistent- new and casual users of Creo immediately feel comfortable because they’re used to the look and feel from other desktop software they may be using. We’ve even had some testers tell us that some Creo apps could comfortably be used by personnel outside the engineering arena, such as those in technical publishing, marketing or sales. That indicates a major shift in usability. You can listen and watch the feedback from those users.

By the way – Neil loves Marmite! [Ed- I hate it!] Join the debate – will Creo apps and ribbon UIs help the next wave of users to directly contribute to design? Let us know your thoughts.

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  1. Phimy
    Posted Mar 8, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I like Marmite, but I’m not a fan of Ribbon UI’s, in Microsoft Office or Wildfire 5 – I find it a waste of time toggling through tabs trying to find tools. When you release Creo, could you please allow us to move the position of a dimension without having to toggle to the “Annotate” tab. This drives me (and my colleauges) crazy!

  2. Posted Mar 10, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting to see that the reaction to the Fluent UI has been much the same across many application types. It is also notable that once people got past the whole “where are my toolbars” thing the ribbon has become more accepted, even loved. When the applications I use (Office, Mindmanager, SnagIt & Autodesk) were ribboned I found the whole process of such a major UI change interesting. I have indexed some Microsoft posts/presentations relating to that along with my own ribbon related blog posts on this page;

    PS: And although its more an Aussie thing I’m a Kiwi who prefers Vegemite :)

  3. kaiman
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    to :Phimy

    Actually you can move the dimension without changing tab with holding the alt key down.

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