OpenOffice.org and the 'Ribbons' Interface Brouhaha

Tuesday Aug 18th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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An OpenOffice feature apparently inspired by Microsoft Office has generated a hostile chorus of no votes.

Two weeks ago, Project Renaissance, the OpenOffice.org team tasked with overhauling the interface of the popular free office application, unveiled its first prototype. The prototype resembled the Ribbon interface first introduced in Microsoft Office 2007, and the denunciations came so fast that few bothered to check the facts, or to give the idea any serious consideration.

542 people responded to the unveiling, many of them hostile to the very idea of Ribbons in OpenOffice.org (OOo). "Why is OOo aping Office 2007's 'Ribbon' design?" The first commenter asked, and the second, "This would be a killer feature for not using OpenOffice.org."

Some posters tried to discuss the prototype and the design decisions behind it, but similar comments reoccurred like a chorus. OpenOffice.org was simply imitating MS Office, some said. Others said that the application was oversimplifying, and catering too much to new users. The reaction spread quickly, as Internet memes do, and, before long, the negative comments found their way into the media, and sites were reporting as a given that OpenOffice.org would be switching to a Ribbon interface.

In the middle of the uproar, almost everybody managed to overlook one tiny detail: It wasn't necessarily happening.

A month before the prototype's release, Andreas Bartel, one of the members of Project Renaissance, blogged that "we decided to keep some sort of a menu in the new UI," and, sure enough, the prototype sported a menu above the Ribbon. Clearly, then, the changes are unlikely to be as great as those in MS Office 2007.

Moreover, if the changes looked extreme, a large part of the reason is that the prototype concentrated on Impress, the slide show application, which has the most cluttered interfaces in all of OpenOffice.org. Simplifying the interface as much in Writer or Calc would hardly be possible without throwing out many of the advanced features that users value.

Even more importantly, those who bothered to read Project Renaissance's status report might have noticed that what was released was only the first prototype. Others are to follow -- in fact, another may be released in the next week, according to Renaissance team member Frank Loehmann. Presumably, some of these other prototypes will be among the 17 submissions to the project before the first prototype was released.

Or, to put things even more clearly, John McCreesh, a lead on the OpenOffice.org marketing project, says, "Many commentators have misunderstood the purpose of the first prototype. This is not a chosen finished product. This is the first of a number of alternatives that Renaissance wants to explore with the wider community."

True, Loehmann did originally announce the prototype by saying that the prototype stage was ended, only to write last week that "The prototype phase didn't end on July 4 as originally planned." Given these comments, perhaps Project Renaissance did originally plan to work with a Ribbon interface, and only backed down in the face of overwhelmingly negative comments. If so, then the consultation process that the project is supposed to be following is working -- Renaissance team members are apparently listening to feedback.

But perhaps too much shouldn't be made about a possible slip of the tongue. What matters is that, no matter what the case in the past, today the Ribbon interface is only one possible future for OpenOffice.org.

More important, even if the Ribbon interface is implemented, McCreesh assures me that "We intend the user interface to be user configurable -- e. g., if a user wants to make better use of the real-estate on a wide screen monitor by moving stuff to one side, then they should be able to do it. We know 'one size fits all' doesn't work -- but we do want the default to be enticing to first time users."

For all the energy wasted on reacting to the prototype, apparently the proposed Ribbon interface is neither as inevitable as people fear, nor as rigid as the example in MS Office.

Are Ribbons more usable?

Unfortunately, the instinctive reaction to the prototype has taken the place of most serious discussion about Ribbons. Yet we need this discussion, because, although Ribbons have been around for several years, their pros and cons are still mostly unknown.

Even with the fears debunked, evaluating the Ribbon is difficult. Many people in the free software community reject the concept simply because it comes from Microsoft. More thoughtfully, others point out that free software is never going to get the respect it deserves if it only copies its proprietary rivals. Conversely, some point out that, since the Ribbon is what people know, then that is what OpenOffice.org needs to persuade people to use it.

The trouble is, all these viewpoints are subjective, although some are more logical than others. While interface design is a skilled craft, most of us imagine ourselves competent to judge it (we rarely are, and, while user experience is central to interface design, it is the statistical experience that matters more than the individual one).

Admittedly, some ideas seem plausible. But the truth is that we have no definitive evidence of what makes people switch to free software in general, or OpenOffice.org in particular. For many, the reason -- at least at first -- may be simply that free software can be downloaded at no cost.

In fact, we don't even know one way or the other whether Ribbons provides an intuitive, first-time-accessible experience that every interface designer wants to create.

Listen to "The Story of the Ribbon," a series of YouTube videos by Jensen Harris, the Principal Group Program Manager of Microsoft's Office User Experience Team, and you might believe that the implementation of Ribbons in MS Office was an overwhelming success. According to Jensen, 80% of long-time users say that Ribbons allow them to do their work with fewer steps, 90% that they make the creation of professional-looking documents easier, and 88% that they make office applications "more fun to use."

By contrast, an academic study by Catherine Beel, available online as a PDF document, suggests that experienced MS Office users took longer to do tasks or navigate with a Ribbon interface, and generally preferred traditional menus and toolbars by a ratio of almost four to one.

The immediate temptation is to reject the Microsoft study as biased or distorted by marketing in favor of Beel's independent study. However, since Beel's study involved only fifty participants, it might have too small a sample to be representative of users as a whole.

The trouble is, published evidence on either side is scanty. In particular, how new users -- the supposed audience for all these efforts -- might rate traditional menus and toolbars and against Ribbons remains unknown, objectively speaking. The Ribbon interface has spread more through Microsoft's dominance than because it is recognized among usability experts as a superior alternative.

Nagging doubts

Still, you do not need certainty to be troubled by the idea of Ribbons. Among the more thoughtful reactions to the new prototype were comments that Ribbons have less than the amount of vertical display for working in -- yet, with wide screen monitors, the extra space is horizontal. Perhaps, then, if Ribbons are used, their default position should be on one side of the editing window, like the dockers or floating toolbars in KOffice 2.0.

More importantly, as John C. Dvorak points out, in MS Office, the introduction of Ribbons obscured many advanced features. Some, such as the notoriously unstable master document feature, seem to have disappeared entirely. In OpenOffice.org's case, I would be particularly worried about what Ribbons would do to its system of styles -- one of its key features, and a significant time-saver for anyone doing longer documents. As Dvorak writes, the effort to make interfaces more intuitive might better be called dumbing-down.

For that matter, does the new user who is the beneficiary of all the interface changes even exist? How many people who start OpenOffice.org have no experience whatsoever of an office application? At any rate, no matter how easy an interface becomes, a learning period is inevitable.

Rather than anticipating the needs of new users, perhaps OpenOffice.org's scarce resources might be better focused on improving the experience of established users. Yet, according to McCreesh, this is precisely the possibility that Project Renaissance has rejected, on the grounds that "the feedback from experienced users was [that] they were generally comfortable with the [User Interface]."

None of these reasons are enough to reject Ribbons out of hand. Maybe Project Renaissance can learn from past mistakes and avoid the potential problems. Still, for me, the question is whether these problems are so much a part of Ribbon interfaces that they are to some degree unavoidable. What troubles me is not so much the possibilities than the fact that no one seems to know definitively how realistic they are.

Content or Interface?

But perhaps the importance of the interface are exaggerated by everybody. While Ribbons are disliked enough that several companies have products to restore traditional menus to MS Office, the majority of MS Office users seem to have adjusted to them. Conversely, few OpenOffice.org users are clamoring for Ribbons.

Perhaps people are far more focused on the content that they produce than the software that is their means of production. If so, then once software reaches the point of rough usability, whether it uses menus or Ribbons matters very little to the majority. So long as the features that they need most of the time are easy to find, I suspect that most users will quickly settle down to either. They may grumble and complain at first, but within hours or days, they will return their focus to their main concern.

If so, then the fact that Project Renaissance chose a Ribbon interface for the first prototype might just be disturbing after all. The decision suggests that Ribbons are already a leading contender for the new look of OpenOffice.org. And, just possibly, they shouldn't be -- not because Microsoft is evil, but because Ribbons might just exchange the existing interface weaknesses of OpenOffice.org for new ones. If that is so, then Project Renaissance might be going through a colossal effort for very little results.

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