Goodbye File menu, hello throbbing Orb


We recently upgraded from Microsoft Office 2003 to Microsoft Office 2007 at work. Clearly Microsoft has put a lot of effort into upgrading the UI in the various components of Office 2007. For those who have not seen Office 2007, this is a snippet from MS Word 2007.

So, gone are the various formatting, editing etc. toolbars that have been a mainstay in the UI for several releases. They have been replaced by “The Ribbon“, which in reality is just one big honkin’ set of toolbars accessed using the Home, Insert, Page Layout etc. menu titles.

Gone too is what has been probably the single most consistent interface element of GUIs, traceable back to the original Macintosh:

Original Macintosh interface

and the Apple Lisa:

Apple Lisa interface

So what was that interface element? It was the File/Edit menu structure. You can see it’s origins in the Lisa interface. Pretty much every general purpose GUI application since the advent of the Macintosh, and certainly from the time that Windows 1.0 came out, had that. That was over 20 years of UI consistency.

Windows 1.0 screenshot

In Office 2007, Microsoft decided to remove it. I have no issue with changing something like the File/Edit menu structure, IF they found a better paradigm or mechanism to replace it with. But the reality is that they’ve simply replaced the File Menu with the “Throbbing Orb”, or should I say the “Microsoft Office Button“.

I refer to it as throbbing, or perhaps pulsating may be a more appropriate adjective, because when I first launched Word 2007, that button was pulsating. I actually ignored it for several minutes, looking for the “File” menu. I wanted to open a document. How difficult should that be? I clicked on all the headers of the Ribbon — Home, Insert, Page Layout etc. — but couldn’t find the thing I needed most — File->Open.

Now I’ve been using software for a very long time. The first Word Processor I ever used was on a Wang 2200 computer. I’ve used WordStar (on CP/M and DOS), Multimate (I’m embarrassed to admit), Wordperfect on DOS (and unfortunately also on Windows — what a horrible product that was), as well as many versions of Word. So, when I sat there dumbfounded unable to find the equivalent of File->Open, I asked one of my coworkers for help. He came over and said, “Click that thing”, pointing at the Office button in the top left of the screen. This is what happens in Word when you click that button:

I immediately thought “What the *&@#?” Why would they do that?

It actually makes no sense to me to design something like this. Why not simply create a File title as part of the Ribbon and put the icons for all these things there? I have to guess there was some internal push by the marketing team to create the Office button for some sort of branding purposes, or perhaps there is some particular IP issue being addressed.

I don’t know, but I really wonder who made such a design decision and why? It’s completely inconsistent with the rest of the interface, confusing for new users, and yet so deliberate in it’s implementation that I’m sure there must have been heavy debates in the Office UI team when deciding to implement it.

There is evidence in the Word (and other Office tools) GUI that the toolbar/no toolbar debate happened within the UI team. After using the Office button, I noticed the little toolbar right at the top of Window with several of the “old” icons such as Save, Undo, Redo etc. Seems like a clear “hack” to appease the more traditionalist camp that insisted on toolbars, or perhaps a clear realization that users needed an easy way to perform basic tasks. I think the folks at Microsoft should remember one of the key axioms of Product Management:

Change is a process, not an event.

Anyone have any insights into the Office 2007 design process at Microsoft ? If so, please share.

Saeed

P.S. Apparently there is enough of a market opportunity for the “old” Office interface, that a 3rd party company has created a product to give that to users.

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5 responses to “Goodbye File menu, hello throbbing Orb

  1. I don’t have any insight but I had originally thought that Microsoft may be trying to set a “standard” for what should be on the “File” menu in every single Windows application. It appears at first that all of the menu items on the throbbing orb menu are exactly the same in every Office application… until you see the ‘Convert’ item in Word. So this scuppers this theory. The menus on the ribbon are more based on the application you’re in.

    So maybe the original idea was to have a standard set of functionality available from the throbbing orb menu in every Windows application but then someone asked “So where are we going to put the ‘Convert’ item in Word?” and that put an end to the plan.

    I had the same problem myself, by the way. I spent five minutes looking for the Print menu item. Had to look in the Help in the end.

  2. Russell,

    Thanks. A colleague indicated that there was method to Microsoft’s madness, but I haven’t had the time to extract the info from him. If I find out the logic, I’ll post it here.

    Saeed

  3. the idea is that the capabilities to do with altering the content of the document should be presented by the ribbon but that capabilities to do with affecting the document as a whole are under the office button. So you see things like file operations, sure, but also meta data tools like those on the prepare menu, options for sending the doc into various collaborative channels like workflows, printing, converting, checking in and out and so on. so it isn’t just the file menu, rather a clearer seperation of content editing and content management.
    hope this helps

  4. Darren,

    Thanks for the clarification. I did research some blogs on the MS site after I wrote the post and got a similar message.

    While the separation of content editing and content management is a good distinction to make, the items under the Office Button are fundamentally the same (with a couple of exceptions) as were under the File menu. Sure, the File Menu did occasionally get overloaded with other things that weren’t explicitly file specific, but whose fault was that? 🙂 Why not simply have a “File” or “Manage” or other equivalent heading in the Ribbon?

    Also, it is clear that the Ribbon really has a number of shortcomings that weren’t present in the previous UI incarnation.

    For example, while the Ribbon does expose functionality that may have been buried in menus or dialogs in previous versions of Office, it also forces a new and rather rigid layout of that functionality, and it is almost impossible for me to do certain tasks without constantly clicking on different titles in the Ribbon.

    For example in Excel, I find I often switch back and forth between the View and Page Layout headings as I’m trying to format sheets for printing. PageLayout->Print Area and Breaks, but View->Page Break Preview, There is no way, as far as I can tell, to associate those two pieces of functionality together in the Ribbon. And of course the Home title with all of its formatting has to always be selected to return to use those items. BTW, I find the in context pop-up formatting really irritating as it shows up many times I really don’t want it.

    In Office 2003, the Toolbars, particularly things like formatting, were omnipresent regardless of the other activities I was undertaking, and didn’t get in my when when I didn’t need them.

    The Quick Access Toolbar is interesting. It’s the little toolbar that by default is just to the right of the Office button. To me, this is an admission that the Ribbon doesn’t provide the necessary flexibility people need so, a bit of the old toolbar centric GUI had to remain. Odd. And boy, have I started overloading that Toolbar with all my most common tasks, as it is the fastest way for me to work without having to switch contexts in the Ribbon.

    I always state that Change is a process, not an event, so I’ll try to take that approach to the Ribbon and the “Throbbing Orb. Hopefully the next iteration — Office 2010? — will show more improvements.

    Saeed

  5. I still have the same problem. It took me several hours if not days to figure that stupid spinning globe. I still hate the damn ting. I do not like any distractions to my work. I can see no use for it, no practical or other use! I just found out the quick access and have been making full use of it. Why the hell would you place the ribbon to take half screen as if the menu and other bars don’t do enough. The default options in Office application is really annoying and self defeating, if you ask me. If some could find a way to change that globe to the file/menu item I would be eternally grateful.