Am I alone in thinking that the user interfaces of the next generation of Microsoft Office applications might be the very textbook definition of overengineered? Looking at them, the Office team appears to have done away with the File menu entirely (perhaps it’s hidden underneath the little floppy disk icon in the upper left?), and moved nearly all functionality into the toolbars, renamed “command tabs” and “ribbons” in the new UIs. What’s more, the ribbons appear to flow out of (and be entirely dependent on) choices made from the few menubar options that remain, making the interfaces even that much more confusing. Hell, in the Outlook screenshot, all the various bits of chrome appear to take up nearly a third of the window — talk about needlessly de-emphasizing the most important part of the interface, the part in which the user actually writes a message!

Years and years ago, Apple was praised to the rafters for its strict guidelines on how a program should present its functionality (known as the Apple Human Interface Guidelines). Over time, the folks in Cupertino began breaking a lot of their own rules in the interfaces of apps like QuickTime and iTunes, but there’s still a good core of consistency in the Mac interface that stretches all the way back to the Lisa in the early 1980s. Looking at these Office screenshots, it’s clear to me how important that consistency is — and how totally and utterly confused a lot of Office 2007 users will be when they’re faced with apps that don’t behave anything like their old ones. I’m not looking forward to that at all.


It seems to me that Microsoft’s UI design team is trying to make changes but doesn’t fully understand that there needs to be some incremental transition period while their users learn the new UI conventions.

They are implementing sweeping UI changes and paradigms, and are justifying it by saying “Oh, here is our documentation. Be sure to read up on what we’re doing so you can use our apps.”

This is precisely the wrong approach to introducing new UI conventions. Asking and expecting your users to learn a new way of doing something they already know how to do with an older version of the application is a sure-fire way to lose revenue from software upgrades.

What Microsoft needs to do instead is issue a series of software upgrades that introduce the new UI conventions over a period of time. Users will upgrade each time and most will not even realize there were lots of new things to learn how to do. Learning a few new things with each upgrade is a lot easier for most users (who never read the manuals/docs) than asking them to re-learn everything they alreayd know in one big software upgrade.

• Posted by: Cameron Barrett on Mar 10, 2006, 3:02 PM

I don’t think it would have been possible to introduce these changes gradually - the new UI is a sea change.

Have you been following the Office UI blog for long? If not, I recommend you jump back about six months or so and start reading forward, it explains a lot.

Also, if you haven’t already done so, I suggest you head over to Channel 9 and watch this video: - it’s a 40 minute video introduction to the new UI given by Julie Larson-Green, who helped come up with the interface.

FWIW, I think it might cause a lot of problems when it finally does hit, but I do think that it’s actually a better user interface.

• Posted by: Phil Wilson [TypeKey Profile Page] on Mar 15, 2006, 6:31 PM

Do most Office users upgrade each time? I haven’t seen many copies later than Office 97 in the wild.

• Posted by: Joe on Mar 15, 2006, 8:23 PM

I’m with you. They seem to be running out of ideas that justify upgrades to core products like Word and Excel. I think they’ll be switching to a subscription model before long so they can guarantee revenues rather than relying on upgrades. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it would allow them to push out new features much faster rather than holding them back to justify upgrades.

• Posted by: Ed Kohler on Mar 20, 2006, 2:27 PM
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