An introduction to the Microsoft Office 2007 ribbon interface

From Word to Excel to PowerPoint, the new Microsoft Office 2007 interface is designed to increase efficiency and make it easier for users to find features to get their work done. The end result is an interface that does make it easier to get things done, but there are some caveats. Scott Lowe provides a detailed overview of the new interface as well as pointing out some areas of challenge.

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By now, you've probably gotten a peak at the radically new interface shipping with Office 2007. From Word to Excel to PowerPoint, the new interface is designed to increase efficiency and make it easier for users to find features to get their work done. The end result is an interface that does make it easier to get things done, but there are some caveats. In this article, I'll provide a detailed overview of the new interface as well as pointing out some areas of challenge.

Note: Since the first beta release of Office 2007, I've forced myself to use all of the 2007 applications, although I have kept Office 2003 installed "just in case." As a result, I've been using the new interface for quite a number of months.

Significant interface changes

As soon as you load an Office 2007 application for the first time, it will hit you: "Whoa." That was pretty much my reaction, even though I'd seen screenshots and other details. Once it's on the screen in front of you, it's a little daunting, particularly if you're an Office power user. In fact, Office power users will probably have the hardest time adjusting to the new interface.

Under the hood—that is, once you get into a regular dialog box—you'll notice that many of the dialog boxes are similar to the ones found in older versions of Office, but the elimination of the traditional menu bars requires a different way of thinking. In short, the Office team at Microsoft has thumbed their collective noses at the traditional interface and created a new way of working. Here are some of the highlights of the new interface.

The Office button

At the very top left corner of the Office window, you'll see what is referred to as the Office button, mainly because it has the Office logo on it, but also because it gives you quick access to many of Office's most important tasks. Among these tasks: open a document, save your work, print your document, publish your work to a shared work space, and a lot more. From this button, you can also access a list of the most recent dozen and other documents you've worked on.

The Office button also takes all of the non-document related activities and puts them in one spot. By "non-document," I mean tasks that do not directly relate to the editing task at hand. These items include Open, Save, Print, Close, and more. From the button, you can also configure overall product options. In Word, for example, you can set your proofing options, save options and more. See Figure A for an example of what you'll find on the Office button.

Figure A

What's on the Office button?

Items on the Office menu that have arrows to the right of the entry have sub-options. For example, in Excel 2007, when you click on the Office button and hover over Save As, you're provided with a list of the possible save options, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

The Save As menu in Excel 2007

The Ribbon

Goodbye menu bar. Goodbye traditional menus. Adios toolbars. In most of the Office 2007 products, Microsoft has foresworn these tried and true interface objects in favor of something more streamlined: The Ribbon. The Ribbon takes up a good chunk of the top portion of the screen—the section once occupied by the menu bar and various tool bars. Your initial use of Office 2007 with the new Ribbon may make you wonder why Microsoft would use interface real estate in this way but, after using the Ribbon for a while, you will probably see how its use can result in significant improvements to the way you work. However, it will take some time, especially if you're an Office power user.

Users that are very familiar with the old Office interface will have the hardest time adjusting to the new system. See Figure C for a look at the Ribbon in Word 2007. Figure D shows you the Ribbon used in Excel 2007. Notice that the Ribbon is broken down into a number of tabs, including the Insert tab, from which you can add visual elements, such as tables, charts and more, to your Word document. The Page Layout tab replaces the Page Setup dialog and provides a place for you to change your document's margins, page size, indentation, and more.

Figure C

The Word Ribbon puts the most necessary items on the Home tab.

Figure D

The Excel ribbon houses Excel-specific tasks.

The Ribbon provides a contextual experience for your users. By that, I mean that the tabs that are available on the Ribbon change based on the document context. If a user is working with a table, for example, a Table Tools section is added to the Ribbon with Design and Layout tabs. These new tabs are visible only when your insertion point is within a table, and stay out of your way at other times. Figure E shows you an example of the Table Tools context sensitive tabs.

Figure E

Context sensitive tabs keeps the clutter out of your interface when it's not needed.

If you're more comfortable working with a more traditional dialog box, these haven't been eliminated from Office. In fact, many of the most common dialog boxes are accessible via a single click of the mouse. Take a look back at Figures C, D, and E. In the lower right-hand corner of most of the various sections of the Ribbon, take note of the small arrow pointing down and to the right. These icons open up the associated traditional dialog box. For example, if you click on the arrow icon in the Font section of the Ribbon in Word, the Font dialog box will open. Since not every single option will fit on the Ribbon, these dialog boxes remain useful.

In the Ribbon bar, on the Home tab, you can also see the most obvious example of galleries. A gallery is basically an example of what a particular style will look like. Word, Excel and PowerPoint make liberal use of galleries. Word uses them to give you a look at what would happen if you applied a particular style to your document. Excel uses them to apply formatting to your spreadsheets and PowerPoint uses them so you can get a look at what a particular template might look like.

To use a gallery, just hover your mouse pointer over one of the representations in the Ribbon. In all Office programs that have a gallery, hovering the mouse pointer over the sample actually temporarily applies that style to your work. As you move across the gallery, you can see each style in turn. To apply a particular style to your work, click the style.


As you can tell, the Office team at Microsoft has made huge changes to the interface in the Office products. How well the changes will be received by hard core users has yet to be determined. In my opinion, the changes, overall, are good. I do like the new Ribbon and really like the galleries, but the learning curve has been a little steep. I use Office -- particularly Word, Excel, and Outlook -- every single day, and generally all day. In all, it took me a few days to really figure out where to find everything and I still find myself looking for things that I used to be able to find. However, once I've found something, it's pretty easy to get back to it.