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Office 12 and the Forthcoming UI Cargo Cults

Friday 26 May, 2006, 12:18 AM

For a while now, I've been following Jensen Harris's excellent blog, in which he has talked a lot about the new UI in Office 2007. And thanks to this week's Beta 2 extravaganza, I'm now running the new Office.

So far, I like what I see. But I'm worried. Not about Office itself - I suspect Office 2007 is going to be one of those "I'm never going back" technologies. No, I'm worried about every other Windows application in the world.

Historically, Windows applications have always followed Office's lead. So it's inevitable that the new Office Ribbon will soon become as ubiquitous as toolbars are today.

If you're thinking of adding one to your application I'd strongly encourage you to reread the transcript of Richard Feynman's famous Cargo Cult Science talk. (And if you've not read it before, stop reading this, and read that instead.) In particular, focus on the part where he talks about an isolated island in which an air base was set up during World War II. The islanders were taken with the way that the airbase seemed to be able to summon up endless airplanes with food and other useful supplies. After the war when the airport was dismantled, they decided to try and summon up airplanes themselves, by building runways, bamboo models of radio equipment and so on.

Despite the fact that the cargo cult went to great lengths to recreate the exact look and feel of an airport, they were disappointed that it failed to deliver the benefits they were looking for. Which brings me the forthcoming rash of Office ribbon knock-offs.

If you've been following Jensen Harris's blog, you'll know that the design of Office's ribbons has been informed by a great deal iterative design informed by usability studies, not to mention a great deal of thought. There's no way I can do this aspect of Office 2007 justice in one blog entry, so I'll just point you at these articles on the ribbon.

Ribbons built without this much thought, effort and care are likely to offer an inferior experience. We'll need to wait to see just how it pans out, but it may well be that an insufficiently-designed ribbon is actually worse than the result of putting an equivalent lack of effort into today's popular UI styles..

This is not a traditional time of year to make predictions, but I'm going to disregard convention and make a forecast for the coming 17 months: thousands of applications will sprout UI features that look an awful lot like Office-style ribbons, but which on closer inspection turn out to have all the merits of wooden headphones with bamboo antennae.

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