Is the Office button a menu or a dialog box?

Another of Simon’s excellent posts about the Ribbon and other parts of the Fluent UI in Excel 2007 has prompted me to respond. Read the ribbon file blunderfest, where Simon says (I snipped a few bits out here for brevity, and the bold is mine):

I already mentioned the lack of file open icon, and previously I have talked about the ridiculous blob. And the initial flashing they had to incorporate to tell us its a button. But when you actually get closer it just gets sillier – I really wouldn’t have thought that was possible!

When you click and look, if you decide to cancel and move to the traditional cancel location (lower right) and click that button, does it close the file open dialog/ribbon? Or does it close Excel?

Everyone I have asked (and me) has accidentally closed Excel numerous times before eventually learning that this particular piece of the interface is not ‘normal’. In fact to cancel that thing you click anywhere else in Excel – and Excel ignores the click but closes the dialog! How ridiculous is that?

They have created a thing that is not as powerful or controllable as a dialog, but is too big and intrusive to be a menu or toolbar so they butchered an existing UI concept – the click away to cancel menu concept to work with this quasi dialog. But dialogs never worked like that before or in other applications. So now Office is the most friction-full application in the widows world (excluding perhaps Ulead products).

So, does the Office button bring up a (poor) dialog, or is it just a menu?

Sorry Simon but I have to disagree with you on this one (I seem to recall being told I was the voice of balance on smurfonspreadsheets by someone…).

Just because you think it’s a dialogue and call it a dialogue does not mean it is a dialog or should behave like one. Shredding a straw man / ribbon does not make a valid argument. To me it looks and behaves pretty much like I would expect a menu to behave:

  • It appears from a button above it, and remains in that fixed position (unlike normal dialog which are windows which can be moved about).
  • It has items which when hovered over reveal sub-menus of related items. The ones which do this are correctly indicated with a small arrow to the right.
  • Since it is not a dialogue, it has no “X” close button in the window title bar because it does not have a title bar. (as an aside, I would wager this is just as popular a method of closing an unwanted dialogue as going for the Cancel button)

Why would I expect a Cancel button on a menu anyway?

Well, I wouldn’t. But even if I did, I would look for it specifically – the cancel button is not always in the bottom right of a dialog (nor always there at all). However, I do find that the Cancel button is usually the one labelled “Cancel” rather than the one labelled “Print” or “Exit Excel”. This principle has stood me in good stead with most applications.

Anyone familiar with the old file menu and expecting things to be the same or similar in the new version would not be at all surprised to find that the option to exit the application was the last one in this list, I would have thought.

Fair enough, it’s not a regular, old style menu

A couple of ways this does not behave like a regular menu in the traditional standard interface design we have all come to love (or at least get very very used to):

  • The “recent documents” list appears in the right hand half when the left hand menu does not require a submenu, rather than extending the menu to ridiculous lengths (especially if you crank up the setting to show the maximum of 50). Unusual? Non-(old)-standard? Sure, but you have to admit it’s useful, makes good sense and requires less mouse travel. And who does not love the ability to pin documents to the recent list by the way?
  • yes, some of the menu items (such as Save As) have something like that weird dual-purpose behaviour where you can click the button and you get something very like it used to be, or you can hover and move to the right for the submenu. But these are better than the similar behaviour of split buttons on the ribbon in a big way – you only have to hover to immediately discover the submenu, unlike the buttons where you have to click one half or the other to see what is going on.
    The only menu item where this actually makes any difference is Save As. You click the left half and the SaveAs dialog is presented with the current saved workbook format selected (or .xlsx for a new unsaved workbook or some other default if you have a group policy in force to keep people in compatibility mode for some reason). A click in the right brings up the same box with the chosen format selected. Big deal. (The Print menu has print as an option on the right too, and no discernible difference to me which you choose to click on, so although it has the dual-control thing there is no downside to the user if they don’t understand it).

For me the only behaviour which is odd enough (in that it is unexpected for a normal menu) to warrant special mention on my Excel 2007 or Office 2007 update training courses is that the menu items can be added to the QAT with a right click, thus proving that they are buttons, this is therefore a dialog not a menu and Simon was right after all! Well, up to a point…

Should File actions be mixed with application Options?

As for “Excel Options” (or Word, PowerPoint etc. options) being out of place in here when everything else is “file” stuff, the same could be said for Options being on the Tools menu historically when everything else there was to do with content (of a spreadsheet or document or whatever) – like spelling checker, track changes or Goal Seek. It was never intuitive in the first place, we just got so used to it over time that anything seems weird (like non-Qwerty keyboards). Other application authors had options (or preferences) on the file menu years ago (Jasc Paint Shop Pro being one example I know of) or put it somewhere else such as the Edit menu. I don’t use Acrobat reader anymore, but I’m pretty sure Adobe put the preferences on the edit menu, which actually sounds right when you want to edit your preferences for the application, but never felt right because I was not editing anything in the usual sense.

I find that people quickly grasp the idea that anything to do with the whole document or whole application is on the Office button. It’s (sort of) a separation of content editing tools (on the Ribbon) and meta-tools (on the Office button).

What about other “whole document” options like Page Setup?

Arguably, Page Setup could have been left there for most people’s purposes (and Print Area in Excel), but they make good sense on the Page Layout ribbon, especially since they can differ from sheet to sheet in Excel or section to section in Word (thus failing my “whole document” test).

I actually prefer the visibility of the options on the Ribbon, especially Scale to Fit – how many times have you wasted a trip to the Page Setup dialog only to find the “fit to 1 page” option you wanted was already set. Now you see it before you go there. And having a true “Automatic” setting rather than a kludge of putting in more pages than you ever expected to need, (which worked until some twit turned on borders for a huge cell range or even the whole sheet). Now I just want the current margins to be obvious, and ideally adjustable from the Ribbon rather than another dialog – “Last custom setting” that I used is not the same as what is current for this document. Especially since Page Setup is one of the few dialogs which is still modal so I have to click OK, find out if everything now fits and wraps where I want it and try again.

To me it would also have made some sense to include other “whole file” operations such as Protect Workbook and Share Workbook on the Office button menu in Excel (maybe in the Prepare sub-menu) as well as on the Review tab of the Ribbon, in order to provide more discoverability? I think it makes as much sense as the Restrict Permission options being there, making it really easy for users to discover that they can’t use this feature without jumping through hoops or having a clued-up IT department to sort out certificate goodies for them.

What would you like to see on the Office button menu? Or on the Ribbon in general?

2 Responses to Is the Office button a menu or a dialog box?

  1. Jon Peltier says:

    The Office thingie is a menu, but it’s an abomination of a menu. Its appearance is like many dialogs, and I can see Simon’s point about the Exit Excel button.

  2. Pingback: Office 2010 first thoughts « Getting IT Right – the unofficial voice of Meteor IT

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