April 3, 2006
I've witnessed the death of the main menu. And toolbars are on their last legs, too. This screenshot* clinches it for me:
Granted, very few people would install this many Firefox extensions. But between this and the Office 2003 debacle, it's patently obvious that the whole menu-and-toolbar paradigm doesn't scale. At all.
[..] many of today's UI paradigms attributed to Apple were introduced well before the Lisa or the Macintosh. Regardless of who gets credit for them, they're good paradigms. There's nothing wrong with menu and toolbar based UI for certain applications. These paradigms served Office well for a number of releases.
It's not that menus and toolbars are bad or that the people who created them weren't smart. The problem is that Office has outgrown them. There's a point beyond which menus and toolbars cease to scale well. A flat menu with 8 well-organized commands on it works just great; a three-level hierarchical menu containing 35 loosely-related commands can be a bit of a disaster.
I'm now starting to question whether traditional menus and toolbars are even appropriate for small applications any more. Web applications tend to be small by design-- and you never see drop-down menus or tiny 16x16 draggable toolbar icons. And they're better without these things.
* via Google Blogoscoped
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Well, for office, the alternative is the ribbon:
I question whether a web browser really has as much functionality as Word, Excel or Powerpoint. Perhaps you might need a few plugins to do something extra (del.icio.us functionality for example, or the pagerank and shared bookmarking in the Google toolbar).
But let's say you had some outrageous need for this many plugins. You certainly don't need them all active at at once. There should be some kind of context-driven activation depending on what you're doing at the time, and the display should be ambient and in-line with the regular content you're viewing..
Actually you do see pop-up menus on web sites. Msnbc.com is one example, and it's very telling that directly under the menus is a button to disable them.
Menus have absolutely, positively no place on web sites. Except in extremely rare cases.
I really should have dedicated an entire blog post to this because I feel so strongly about it. But I briefly touch on it here:
Then I guess you'll have to remove the "Recent Entries", "Archives", etc. items from the side of your blog. They are menus. Perhaps not in the same sense as some of the flash-based horrors out there, but menus nonetheless. Perhaps that is what you intended when you said menus?
Having said that, I agree with the premise of the post - the time for multi-level menus is past us. I know I have troubles navigating two or three levels of menus (and the Web based multi-level menus are the worst). I think you are also right in thinking that context is the way to go -- just as with Web pages/sites, you can usually define some context that the client is in, and provide some commands that are useful at that level. Word (and related editors) are problematic, though. When you start a Word document, what's a good context? Text entry? Formatting? Ribbons provide one layer of context, but I'm not yet convinced they're the right solution, or just another menu. (Guess I need to try Word 2007 to be sure)
. Perhaps not in the same sense as some of the flash-based horrors out there, but menus nonetheless
Sorry, I should have been more precise. Traditional *drop-down* GUI menus. Of any kind, even short single item ones.
Guess I need to try Word 2007 to be sure
Make it so, Visual Active Kent Sharkey SE 3.11!
Well, for office, the alternative is the ribbon
For anyone who has had as much trouble figuring out why the Ribbon is so different, here is a movie of the new Office UI:
I dislike user interface elements that change when I go to different sections. The "Contextual Tabs" would drive me nuts. (I already hate that Visual studio wants to pop up the Debug toolbar (and change all of the layout) when I debug something. It feels too much like I am fighting against the application.
The ribbon seems like it will be useful, but I tend to use the keyboard for everything anyway. (I'll be terribly disappointed if they take away my ability to do things like Alt-i-o to insert an object using the underlined letters in the menu.)
Hopefully with the new WPF stuff we'll be able to make more web-like desktop UIs - right now everything's menus and toolbars because it's excruciatingly painful to do anything else.
And you wonder why Firefox uses so much RAM? Geez. :-)
I'm now starting to question whether traditional menus and toolbars are even appropriate for small
applications any more. Web applications tend to be small by design-- and you never see drop-down menus
or tiny 16x16 draggable toolbar icons. And they're better without these things.
Perhaps not for small applications, but how do you do Photoshop without toolbars and menus? Have you ever seen a web app that can do what Photoshop does? I guess I'm not following you because, while I agree that most web apps are hindered more than helped by dropdown menus, they are also generally fairly simple compared to full featured desktop apps.
I'm also not following what you're saying with your example of the Firefox screen shot. Yes, you can certainly turn Firefox into a hideous monster by turning on everything so that you have one big blob of a UI, but that's not how most normal people use it. I have what I need 95% of the time on the couple of toolbars that I leave on. Why would anybody do what you did with Firefox and expect that it would be usable.
I predict that CRTs and LCD screens are going the way of the dinosaur, and people will use audible users interfaces. To prove my point, I'm going to blindfold this user... :-)
After reading "Don't make me think" which preaches the usability of tabs, it's understandable why Office 2007 uses ribbon, which is a tabbed interface.
Also if you look at sites like www.Amazon.com, you can see they use a tabbed interface.
Perhaps desktop applications and websites *can* have a similar interface... :)
I don’t really see the Menu or Icons as the problems, but more the fact that you give users the possibility to customize the layout. If people can f*ck up the user-interface, 90% will do so. That is why I really admire the stuff Apple does, that have the guts to say NO to the user. (http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000109.html) and somehow they are still admired by the geeks. It is the simple and minimalist design that is difficult to make. Putting all the extra features like extensions and add-ins are peace of cake, they only take the time they take to create.
If my application does not work, I just need an extra mouse button?
Of cause it is fun to pimp your applications, but ask yourself the question, does it really make them better?
I think the office12 layout is a step in the right direction, but only a step. And I do hope that it is fully operational without a mouse.
As already pointed out, MS has spotted this as well and Office 2007 really goes a long way to fixing the usability issues with traditional menus and toolbars.
Until recently I could see a compelling reason for changing over to Office 2007, but then I saw a demo! The new navigation functionality alone is worth the upgrade, never mind all those other smart changes that make you gasp ;-).
"The "Contextual Tabs" would drive me nuts."
They are surprisingly unobtrusive. Considering you tend to end up doing most of the text based stuff (changing font, font size and font styles) through either keyboard shortcuts or the new "floaty" (a small toolbar that appears hovered unobtrusively near selected text) there is most of the time no need to ever switch out of a context tab. And unlike VS "debug" mode, the layout is not all completely changed, new bars don't pop-up to shift the layout of everything, including the main edit window. Just a new tab slides and fades into view. And then only when you’re dealing with non-text. Which, apart from tables, is not very often at all. It also doesn’t force a switch. When you add, say, a table, it will logically switch to the new table format tab. But if you are in the write tab, or even any of the other tabs, and you select the table, it won’t switch to the new context tab for you. The new tab will appear, but it won’t automatically select it for you.
I've been using the UI for a few days now and it's very impressive. Everything *is* at your fingertips. You hear people talk about it only taking 1 or 2 hours to get used to it. I was at home within a minute or so. But then I had watched the Channel9 video’s on it.
"And I do hope that it is fully operational without a mouse."
Press Alt and text labels will appear over everything. Type the letter(s) that appear in that text label and it will select that tab/drop-down selection/option. Similar to the old system, except it's changed very slightly to work with the ribbon interface. The fact that it uses text overlays means that it can be used on all UI elements, and is more obvious than an underlined letter. So you can use keyboard navigation for any sort of button etc. that doesn't even have a text label.
The ribbon is fundamentally just a toolbar, IMO. It just happens to be a well-made, responsive and adaptive toolbar.
Different kinds of applications require different interfaces.
I see an important distinction between document-centric applications (Excel, Photoshop etc) and non-document-centric apps (calendars, online shopping etc). Call them process-centric, perhaps.
In a document-centric application, most of the screen is, and should be, filled with the document. And at any time, a large number of actions need to be accessible, because there is a great many things you could want to do with the document. This is what toolbars and menus are good at: making a large number of actions available.
In a process-centric application on the other hand, the user does things in a more-or-less predictable order, and at every point the next step is usually one of a few alternatives. Guided wizard-style interfaces (which really is what most web sites are) work well here.
I watched the Office ribbons demo and I think its mostly just eye candy. Well done eye candy, I'll admit, but I don't think it really makes Word or Excel more useful. Its like they are putting all their effort into making Office easier to use to generate flashy documents, but not necessarily *better* documents.
Having 30 pre-defined table formats that magically preview as you hover over them may be cool, but it doesn't help me write any better. The two things that I've always found very useful in word processors are a spell checker and a thesaurus. Those are useful no matter what you are writing: a report, email, blog comments, a thesis. But true-color column headers with animated borders don't solve a real problem.
Most of my writing today tends to be in email, or browsers: make Word lightweight enough that it can hook an HTML text area and provide spell checking and other *writing* features and I'd be happy (forget about the grammar feature, though, its barely "gooder" than my own poor grammar).
The problem with Office isn't a complex toolbar and confusing menu structure - its a set of applications that have grown too complex. The toolbar issue is simply a symptom of a different problem. The new ribbon is just a bandaid, not a cure.
No UI scales when your I is so complex that the app can no longer be U friendly.
"Menus have absolutely, positively no place on web sites. Except in extremely rare cases."
Define "web sites". Would MSN.com count as a web site? How about GMail or Hotmail?
This contrived scenario's no good.
Sure, the Firefox scenario is contrived, because bolting on that much extra functionality to a browser is kinda ridiculous.
But the Office 2003 scenario isn't contrived in the slightest. The rising tide of built-in complexity completely overwhelmed the ability of traditional toolbars and menus to keep up:
See Jensen's graphs and data points on this. Clearly menus and toolbars don't scale. But I propose that they scale poorly down BOTH edges of the axis: for complex apps AND for simple (web-style) apps.
changed, new bars don't pop-up to shift the layout of everything, including the main edit window
I'm glad you brought that up, because that drives me nuts! I hate it when I'm tabbing (or arrow-clicking) through visual studio sub-windows and the view's shifting all over the place as toolbars appear and disappear.
We all just need bigger monitors with higher resolutions. Problem solved.
"A menu of that many items obviously won't scale well, but maybe thats just a symptom of a greater problem."
I don't know if I'm understanding you correctly, but the Office team designed the ribbon simply because there was that many items (i.e. similar to the firefox illustrated). And it works really well. All the simple things are to hand. But so are all the more complex things. Unobtrusivly, but also not hidden away.
IE7 beta2 is giving a good example: the main menu is hidden. It can be visible by hitting left Tab key.
If that user is happy with that toolbar setup, who are you to tell him he shouldn't be?
Have been wandering around Jensen Harris' blog linked to here, and am having this horrible feeling that my expertise in Office is about to be flushed down the toilet on the altar of usability.
Will Alt-E-S-V work in Excel?
Will Alt-T-O work in Office?
All those keyboard shortcuts I use without engaging the conscious brain? The ability to rearrange all those nicely small buttons to my liking? (that Paste button on the ribbon is a freaking horror)
Help the helpless newbie by all means, but please don't shoot my hands off.
Define "web sites". Would MSN.com count as a web site? How about GMail or Hotmail?
I personally think it is a huge mistake for web sites to adopt traditional client app interfaces. For example, the way the latest version of Yahoo Mail tries its darndest to look exactly like Microsoft Outlook.
Web apps should transcend the limitations of traditional apps, not ape them.
"I watched the Office ribbons demo and I think it’s mostly just eye candy."
I would completely disagree. It really does dramatically improve productivity and discoverability. Word (and the rest of Office) is already a pretty solid base line. It’s already very good at what it’s meant to do – help you write documents quickly. Now it makes it easier to go the next step – documents that look pretty.
Some of the features, like “Quick Formatting” has been around for ages. You’ve always been able to use headers and pre-defined headings, but it’s been hidden away, people didn’t know how to use it and it was slightly cryptic. Now people can use headers a lot easier, with all the benefit of automatic style updating, table of contents and all the rest.
The interface really does help you to get at pretty much every feature in little more than 2 clicks maximum. Surely that dramatically increases productivity over cascading menu’s up to 4 deep and remembering various shortcuts? Isn’t that a lot more than just eye candy?
You only highlight the new features in Word. Excel has new features that really dramatically improve it. The whole new table paradigm really improves how you use Excel and what you can do with it. And it’s a new feature that will pretty much be used by everyone every time they use Excel, it’s that useful.
“Most of my writing today tends to be in email”
If you use Outlook there will be a lightweight (or slightly more advanced if you have Word installed) version when writing your emails. But I agree, it should be extended so anyone can include it.
“The new ribbon is just a bandaid, not a cure.”
To all who don’t mind the possible dodgy legal implications I urge to download Office 2007 (find a torrent or something) and try it out for 20 minutes. I’m almost certain you will be converted :) It really does solve the problem very well. Even with all the functionality, whatever the feature you’re looking for it can be found in one of 8 tabs (including the possibility of 2 extra tabs if an object is selected). Doesn’t take long at all to scan through them.
“its a set of applications that have grown too complex”
There is only 1 feature in the first 4 tabs I would never use. I use most of them regularly. I wouldn’t really use the Mailings tab, but a lot of people would. And I would occasionally use a lot of the features in the Review tab. So Word hasn’t outgrown itself to become too complex an application at all. And now I know where everything is. Previously I was managing all the references in my essays myself. Now I can use the excellent tools they provide that I have just discovered.
To all who don’t mind the possible dodgy legal implications I urge to download Office 2007 (find a torrent or something) and try it out for 20 minutes. I’m almost certain you will be converted :)
While I may be skeptical, I will certainly give it a try. I can't have my users knowing more about the new Office than me!
BTW, why do I always have to enter the word "orange"? Why not something else? Is it tied to the user??
why do I always have to enter the word "orange"?
It's my ultra ghetto hard-coded CAPTCHA that.. isn't really a captcha.
p.s. Don't tell the spammers, because it's working so far.
Not following you here. You've taken a completely ridiculous scenario (a browser with hundreds of toolbars installed) and used it to show that toolbars are no good.
This contrived scenario's no good.
The point of Firefox extensions is that you can add or remove them at will to suit the experience you desire. Users pick a few and go with it, and remove them if they don't use or like them. The same goes for the screenshots of Word with every toolbar enabled. They're sensational, but they prove nothing.
If a user's installing every single Firefox extension available, they've got bigger problems than user interface managment. UI design needs to serve the needs of the 99%.
while i think the ribbon idea is a good extension/rethinking of the menu/toolbar concept, certain things just don't scale. having a single program let you do 15,000 things may not be the best thing. A menu of that many items obviously won't scale well, but maybe thats just a symptom of a greater problem.