Ribbon tweaking

15 Jun 2007

Simon Jones helps out with customising the Ribbon and joins the file format standardisation debate.

The new user interface Microsoft has introduced into the major Office 2007 applications is designed to make life easier for all users. It's clean, logical and very powerful, but some people find the transition from the old menus and toolbars to the new Ribbon too daunting to contemplate, while others don't like the fact they can no longer customise the hell out of the Ribbon to make it work the way they want it to, as they could do with the old toolbars. Microsoft has deliberately reduced the degree of customisation available in the new UI, because it had discovered the majority of users didn't customise their UI, and that those who did either accomplished it by accident or by merely adding four or fewer buttons to an existing toolbar. The proportion of users who seriously and deliberately developed a rationally customised UI was tiny, but with an estimated 400 million Office users, even half a percentage point represents a group of people large enough to ignore at peril. Microsoft gambled that annoying these ultra-customisers was a price worth paying for giving the 99.5% of ordinary users (and all the IT support people) what they wanted; a consistent, predictable and stable user interface that looked the same every time you used it, and which didn't degrade over time by losing menu items you hadn't used for a while.

That's why several third-party software houses have been working to provide ways to customise the Ribbon ever since the first beta test version of Office 2007 became available. The first results are now arriving on the market, and one of the best is the RibbonCustomizer add-in from www.pschmid.net. Its free Starter edition lets you add extra groups of commands to existing tabs or predefined packages of tabs, groups and commands to your UI. You can also quickly show or hide your customisations, or reset the Ribbon to its default appearance. The Professional edition, at £21.95, allows you to reorder the groups of commands on a tab and to define your own tabs and groups containing whichever commands you want. You can remove or reorder whole tabs and reorder groups within the tabs, and you can also save your customisations as RIBX packages, which other people, using the Starter edition, can then load into their own Office. When you download the RibbonCustomizer add-in, you automatically receive a free 30-day trial of the Professional edition, and if you don't cough up the money it dumbs itself down to the free Starter edition at the end of the trial period. And if you're thinking it's a damned cheek to make us pay out more to be able to tweak the Office UI, and that Microsoft should have built in the ability to do this for free, I'm afraid all I can say is "tough!"

An extra freebie with pschmid's RibbonCustomizer add-in is a collection of packages that add a Classic UI tab to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which simulate the old menus and toolbars interface. The menus are all there, allowing for obvious differences such as the inclusion of SmartArt on the Insert menu and other changes in wording to fit with the new or different features in Office 2007. Below the menus are two rows of buttons that simulate the standard and formatting toolbars from Office 2003. The overall effect is quite cluttered, as these menus and toolbars are squeezed in below the headings of all the tabs. And, of course, as soon as you start to use features such as tables or images, more new context-sensitive tabs pop up, which you have to use to manipulate the objects. However bad this Classic UI tab looks, though, it still performs a useful function, because some people have been put off upgrading to Office 2007 because they think the new UI is so different to previous versions it will take them ages to learn how to drive the thing properly again. Some even believe the new UI would affect their productivity so badly they can't afford to upgrade. Perhaps this Classic UI tab will provide a halfway house in which these people can feel more comfortable, although I'd hope they'd eventually learn to like the Ribbon interface and turn off the Classic UI tab altogether.

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