On the Death of the Main Menu

One of the biggest highlights of PDC 2005 was the first day keynote, when the Office 12 UI was unveiled. I don't know if people realized the significance of what we saw at the time-- but we had just witnessed the death of the main menu.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2005/09/on-the-death-of-the-main-menu.html

My understanding is Office did this UI change with a tremendous amount of data. When they say 70% of the clicks users need are on the default pallette, they really know that. No guess work is involved.

I have to wonder if making this style of UI will be dependent on a qualitatively different type of usability study?

Tabbed palettes are likely the wave of the future (the wave of the future… the wave of the future… slap) but only in applications with easy-to-iconize functions aimed at casual users.

Why? For esoteric functions, it’s much easier to come up with a menu item name than with an icon, professional users will soon switch to keyboard shortcuts anyway, and drop-down menus hold many more items than palettes (without reducing the actual work space to zero).

So I don’t expect this interface to take over Visual Studio or FrameMaker anytime soon. Even today, I barely use the toolbar or toolbox in VS – many icons are obscure, keyboard shortcuts are much faster, and even a double row on a 1280x1024 monitor just doesn’t show that many functions.

Maybe I am a bit slow … but as far as I can see, they still have a Main menu ? It is just changed… ?

The menu in O12:

File, Save, Undo, Redo, Write, Insert, Page…

Instead of the old:

File, Edit, View, Insert…

And instead of having chaotic buttons that does the same as the dropdowns in the main menu, they have arrenged in nice grouped panels binded to the menu.

I actually think it is pretty nice, but I am not that impressed, but I feel that it is about time that Microsoft is fixing the usability on Office.

I havent had time to see the vid-clips from PDC, but I hope that they improved the core editor in Word and the way it handles scientific expressions. etc…

they still have a Main menu ? It is just changed… ?

Notice that there is no “Help” menu. There is no “Tools, Options” menu. With the minor exception of File*, everything is task based and visible. Hardly any relationship at all to the WIMP menus we know and love.

Also, you can’t see it in a static screenshot, but the selected tab changes by itself depending on what you click on in the body of the document. That’s what I meant by context sensitive.

We saw it in action at the PDC, which is why I think a lot of people look at the static screenshot and don’t quite comprehend the depth of this change-- it’s killing off the main menu. For a better “live” a pretty good video at Channel 9 with Julia demoing the ribbon:


Just scroll about 25% of the way in to get to the app demo and skip the preliminary jibba-jabba.

  • The File menu doesn’t look much like a traditional menu when it is dropped down. It has giant pictures and a lot of multi-line descriptive text next to each “menu item”.

Also, you can’t see it in a static screenshot,
but the selected tab changes by itself depending
on what you click on in the body of the
document. That’s what I meant by context

And that’s what I already find quite disturbing
when working with Visual Studio. The help on the
lower right is context-sensitive as well and
dependent on what you do in the edit-pane, it’s
changing its contents.

This flickering on the lower right part of the
screen draws off my attention all the time. It’s
the same effect like animations on web-pages that
is keeping the reader’s attention away from the

The help-screen I can minimize or close, but I
barely doubt that this will be possible for the

Best regards, Lothar

The help on the lower right is context-sensitive as well and dependent on what you do in the edit-pane, it’s changing its contents.

The same thing (menus and toolbars changing) happens when you switch from code view to design view in ASP.NET, and nobody complains about that…

Or when you switch from editing text to editing XML, a new toolbar materializes.

I don’t mind the changes per se, it’s the shifting of stuff vertically or horizontally that kills me. As long as the area changing is localized to a very specific area, I think that’s the way to go.

I believe when you hold down the alt or ctrl key the rest of the shortcut appears over each icon (kind of like a tiny floating button). The video on channel 9 is truly worthwhile.

From what I can see the change from menu to ribbon is what allows for in-place preview on each command. The ability to quickly browse the end result of many commands and pick what looks best appears really powerful.

That Channel 9 video does look pretty good, but still…

I think the best thing about those “ribbons” is that they’re replacing toolbars (full of tiny incomprehensible icons, most of which are irrelevant at any given point in time) and the confusing myriad of auto-switching toolbox windows we have today.

For this stuff, ribbons are a great replacement. No doubt about that.

But replacing the traditional modeless dialogs and drop-down menu? I bet there will always be some functions that you can’t cram on the ribbon. Note that Office 12 still has all the traditional dialogs because the ribbon just can’t cover all the available options!

As for menus specifically, I really appreciate having visible keyboard shortcuts. Can’t see how you’d put them in the brief ribbon text.

Also, did you notice how many placeholder icons they had? Creating such a number of good icons is hard. You’ll need to have a professional artist to do this interface well.

I’m not sure if MS-DOS EDIT 2.0 goes back farther than Word 2.0, but fire it up and notice it too has the toolbar.

but fire it up and notice it too has the toolbar.

Start, Run, cmd.exe, edit

?? all I see is a character mode menu bar and a character mode status bar.

The first application I saw a toolbar on was Ashton Tate’s Full Impact in about 1988. It was their attempt to play in the spreadsheet world, only on the Macintosh. Then Excel (3.0?) came out about 6 months later and it had it standard. I also remember a toolbar addin for Macintosh from the same era. You could add a toolbar to the top of any application, so we had it on Excel, MacWrite and even our developement environments. Oh, the good old days…

Ribbon a code-name? Hmmm, looks an awful lot like the Blackberry UI for their “main menu” - or palette of applications… Derivative, like most MS stuff, but likely successful as well.

This could be seen as a radical new design concept that will revolutionise Office usability. Or it could be seen as a sign that the bloating of features has finally caused the menu system to collapse under its own weight. Rather than simplify things, Microsoft has decided to keep the complexity and myriad of features, and provide an interface that is so different to any other GUI application that it will likely take years of training before regular office workers get up to speed again. And it will still be wholly inconsistent with the thousands of existing GUI applications out there on the market.

Gone are all the memorised keystrokes and shortcuts. Lost are the paths through the menu system to find commonly used tasks. Users will face massive retraining and a significant shift in their mental model of the system.

Aside from the cost of purchasing new hardware just to run these new behemoths and the cost of file format conversion (and incompatabilities) the training costs are going to be astronomical.

Aside from the cost of purchasing new hardware just to run these new behemoths and the cost of file format conversion (and incompatabilities) the training costs are going to be astronomical.

This is the same argument that is always trotted out when Microsoft changes anything.

You can’t have it both ways: either you get something new, different, and quite possibly a heck of a lot better…

… or you can have more of the same. Bleh.

I guess we’ll see when we use it, but I anticipate several problems:

  1. Wasted screen real estate (nearly double the space required).

  2. Context sensitive can be really confusing - nothing is where you remember it being, and then you end up trying to discover how to recreate the context that brings up the feature you need. This is why people switch off the customized menu options for Office and the Start Menu - you end up with no idea where anything you haven’t used recently is.

  3. As mentioned by another poster above, some applications will probably not fit this model well, so now we end up with two ways of doing things rather than the ‘one method fits all applications’ that we have mostly enjoyed to date that is the strength of Windows in the first place (currently being undone by bad skins on multimedia applications).

hehe, Yeah at first I thought that GEOS had come out before Windows 1.0, but it looks like Windows came out in 1985 and GEOS was released in 1986. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEOS_%288-bit_operating_system%29. Would you consider the first Macs finder to have a toolbar?

Regarding Microsoft’s toolbar comment - I think it was in Office '97 that toolbars took on a whole new and extensive life. That was the release where they were movable (they may have been before, but it wasn’t until Office 97 that it was obvious). They were composeable, reorderable, etc. They could be put on all sides of the application. Even the menubar was a toolbar. I remember spending more time with Office '97 having stupid fun with the menubar than getting anything productive done. I’d put it on the side… I’d detach it and have all the menus stacked so that it looked like NeXTStep style menus… Since then, they’ve gotten even more egregious. There are way too many of them and it is really hard to narrow down the one thing you want to click on out of the myriad of tiny little pictures. Something changed with Office 97 in regards to toolbars, and I’ve long been of the opinion that Office 97 was the last time any major Office UI work was done. Sure, task panes and “smart menus” have come along to try to help, and in some applications they work better than others, but there’s a trove of functionality in most Office applications that goes unused due to either its complexity or just the fact that no one knows how to get to it. Too often I see people struggle with things like ordered (numbered) lists in word, and the tools to help them get the lists back in order are often too buried to be useful… “why did this start back at one? It’s supposed to be nine!”

I like the new Office interface ideas. I think it communicates more clearly by providing both pictures and text - not just in the ‘ribbon’ itself, but in the items that pop up. I like Apple’s “Pages” application for this - the toolbar is simple, the buttons are clear, and the menus that they pop up have visual and text information in them so it’s easy to understand which template style you might be selecting, for example.

Office 12 is a much richer adaptation of this interface style. I like it, at least for being different if for nothing else. Screen real estate means nothing if I can’t figure out how to do what I think should be a simple task. And I thought Word 5.1’s menus were too complex to figure out!

Here’s an interesting blog entry that traces the history of the Office UI. I suspect that it was inspired by this post, somehow, since it starts with Word 1.0 like I did :wink:


Great Jakob Neilsen entry on the Office 12 UI: he thinks it’s a big deal, too!


Next Generation: Results-Oriented UI

The next version of Microsoft Office (code-named “Office 12”) will be based on a new interaction paradigm called the results-oriented user interface. As the demos show, the most obvious departure from the past is that menus and toolbars are all but wiped out. The focus is now on letting users specify the results they want, rather than focusing on the primitive operations required to reach their goals.
The new interface displays galleries of possible end-states, each of which combine many formatting operations. From this gallery, you select the complete look of your target – say an org chart or an entire document – and watch it change shape as you mouse over the alternatives in the gallery. The interaction paradigm has been reversed; it’s now What You Get Is What You See, or WYGIWYS.

It’s as if you could point to a marble block and say, “I want it to be the David – or maybe Venus de Milo,” as you flip through a book of famous statues. Every time you mention a design, your marble block would morph accordingly, but with your content (say, the face or the size) in place of that original element.

It’ll take a Star-Trek-style holodeck to make a results-oriented UI for actual sculpting, but it should be possible to build one today for a 3D drawing program or other creativity software. For now, we can explore how the results-oriented UI works for productivity software like Microsoft Office. Although I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve worked with the software for an extended period, the new design does seem to resolve many of the problems with recent user interfaces.

If anybody else introduced a new user interface paradigm, it would probably remain a curiosity for years, but Microsoft Office has a special status as the world’s most-used interaction design. We know from user testing that users often demand that other user interfaces work like Office. When you’re used to one style most of the day, you want it in other applications and screens as well.