When choice is bad: The OpenOffice ribbon

The answer shouldn't always be "Make it a choice!" Good design is often (indeed is usually) about constraining choice rather than expanding it.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
2 min read

At the end of July, Sun posted a screenshot from "Project Renaissance," an effort aimed at creating a new user interface (UI) for OpenOffice. The prototype includes a "ribbon" UI in the vein of the one that Microsoft introduced for Office 2007. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the user comments were critical and devolved into Microsoft bashing.

I never got the ribbon-hate myself. Well, OK, that's not really true. A lot of people don't like change and a lot of people like ragging on Microsoft for whatever reason.

However, I always found it more than a bit ironic that a lot of the same people who routinely claim that Microsoft doesn't innovate were, in this case, suggesting this was a good opportunity to get users moved to OpenOffice where they could avoid such a disruptive change.

For my part, I found the ribbon took some getting used to but now I like it for the most part. Like other Microsoft products, I find the design a bit garish but the mechanics generally work well enough for me.

So I don't see anything wrong, at least in principle, with OpenOffice introducing a ribbon interface. There are a lot of broader issues around OpenOffice and its future. These include Oracle's acquisition of Sun, fragmented development by a variety of companies, and the lack of a clear mission at the level of the project as a whole. Part of the problem is that while a free/cheap, "good enough" word processor may be something that a lot of end users want, that's not really a business for anyone. For its part, IBM has used OpenOffice to tie into document-related business processes. But that's about something fundamentally different from OpenOffice, the word processor.

Beyond the question of what OpenOffice wants to be when it grows up, though, there is something specific about the prototype that bothers me.

To understand why, it's important to understand what Microsoft was trying to accomplish by introducing the ribbon. For the full story, I highly recommend this video by Jensen Harris of the Office User Experience Team from MIX08. However, in a nutshell, the ribbon essentially ripped out years of accumulating menu items and other UI elements and replaced them with something designed from the ground up. It was a bold choice but the nature of the problem meant that it didn't lend itself to a piecemeal fix--indeed, piecemeal fixes were what caused the problem in the first place.

The OpenOffice prototype, on the other hand, appears to add a ribbon while leaving the menu system extant. This way lays user interface madness even if it does provide more choices. Good design is often (indeed is usually) about constraining choice rather than expanding it.

(For a different perspective, see the CNET piece by Dong Ngo.)