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Help! The Ribbons are coming

May 24th, 2009

This is a translation of my editorial in EasyLinux 02/2009 (link to german version).

Help! The Ribbons are coming

The Ribbons are coming. That isn’t father and mother Ribbon with their dodgy son Frank Ribbon who terrorizes the neighborhood — no, the Ribbons are worse: They are little revolutionaries wanting to change the whole world and attack people’s habits… at least, as far as software usage is concerned.

Ribbons are a Microsoft invention and users of the latest MS Office already know them: Gone are the times of navigating through multi-level menus, instead there are many beautiful and context-dependent icons for the program functions that make sense at a given time.

Some usability experts say that ribbons make it easier for newbies to learn how to use a new program and that they arrange software functions more clearly. There’s truth in that: Finding a specific function in the submenus of a completely unknown program can take some time. But users with a couple years of experience gets all sweaty when seeing the new ribbons for the first time: First you find nothing, and then the large ribbons waste a lot of the screen.

For MS Office, third party vendors came up with add-on software that brings the old menu structure back (and makes Office usable again for experienced users). But with the release date of Windows 7 approaching, ribbons are going to show up in many of the included programs.

Leave me alone with your ribbons!

Dear developers of OpenOffice, Gimp, Firefox, and the uncounted mass of other programs: Please don’t hop on the ribbon train. Not every innovation is an improvement. Stay firm and deliver your software with classic menus. Those may of course be optimized following usability considerations and list standard features at the locations where they are expected.

Then Windows users who have to observe standard apps replacing menus with the new ribbons can flee towards free alternatives from the Linux world — they are often available for Windows as well.

What do you think of ribbons? Using software with ribbons? Like them or hate them?

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