Microsoft has made some puzzling, menu-related UI decisions in the last few years; specifically, they seem to be targeting all menus for elimination, citing research that they claim shows users are “confused” by the menu paradigm that they’ve been using for a couple decades now. I know I’m late to this party, but it’s only very recently that we have been migrated to Office 2007 at work, and therefore my frustration at this practice is only now reaching a fever pitch.

Over the years, Microsoft has played with several different paradigms–usually within its Office suite–and the result has always been the same: commands that won’t stay in place so you can find them! One major attempt a few years ago was the hiding of “less often” used menu commands under an arrow. Which items were considered “less often” used of course changed over time as you used them, causing the various commands to jump around in the menu. How this “feature” ever made it out of beta testing is a mystery to me. Perhaps watching users’ frustration over menus that constantly changed was what made them decide to ditch menus altogether a few years later. (Rather than, say, stick with normal menus that users already know how to use.)

Fast forward to Office 2007. Menus are gone. Well, except there’s one under that big round Orb thing in the corner. Between the short row of “most common” commands that has been inserted into the title bar (?!) and the Ribbon. The Ribbon is Microsoft’s latest attack on the traditional menu paradigm, removing menus entirely and replacing them with something akin to tabbed toolbars. Only these toolbars feature items that dance around in place as you shrink and expand the window. Check out this silliness:

Dancing Commands

Dancing Commands

The different sizes of the “chunk” (there are several “chunks” per “ribbon”) reflect what happens as you shrink the window. Notice that at smaller sizes you don’t even get a textual description of the command anymore–and keep in mind that this is the ONLY way to access a command from now on. The goal of this design was to make commands “easier to find”. Huh? I think the fact that Microsoft has posted a Flash application on the Office website which shows people how to find a command based on where they knew it to be from earlier versions of Office is proof enough of the epic fail involved here. I had thrown up my hands in frustration on several occasions, unable to find a command, until I found this application. Thanks, MS!

Contrast this situation with Apple. Mac programs universally feature a menu bar at the top of the screen. Mac guidelines state that menu commands are not to appear or disappear at random. The upshot is that commands are always in the same place and you are not forced to hunt around for them–no matter where on the screen your window is or what size it is. In the latest version of OS X, Leopard, they even added a search box to the Help menu which allows you to find commands by typing in part of the name. What could be easier?

Easy Help

Easy Help

You can of course choose to ignore Mac guidelines if you wish, but then no one will use your software because the stereotype that Mac users are pickier than Windows users is true. Applications that conform to standards established by Apple and other major software vendors are prized over applications that try to “do their own thing”.

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