Opinion: New Explorer Ribbon in Windows 8

Windows Explorer 10 Ribbon interface“Once you get used to it, you’ll love it” (Microsoft)

Time for another unpalatable truth. It has been quite a few years, we’re used to it and still don’t love it. How many users do you know who find the ribbon on MS Office a confusing quagmire? Are you one of them? It’s a terrible waste of screen real-estate, with or without the collapse button.  Toolbars were stackable and small enough that you could have all of your common commands available on screen at once. Somehow I’m constantly tabbing around bits of the Ribbon.

It has no logical hierarchy by which to find infrequently used commands. At least in a menu, there’s a parent list of options, followed by progressively more specialized sub-menus; there is a visual flow from top to bottom. Yes, the Ribbon has a top level, but the sub-levels are progressively more random and difficult to scan for commands. The location of commands within the Ribbon issue is hard-coded. You can’t reconfigure it like Toolbars.

This is almost exactly how the Ribbon worked in Office 2007. And is the Ribbon really touch friendly? What about commands with the small icons inline with text? The Ribbon is so not-Metro and yet the concept is the same: a single UI for touch and non-touch users. You either make the buttons too small for touch, or waste massive screen real-estate for non-touch.

More fundamentally, why have a fixed, horizontal Ribbon at all?  Why not a vertical Ribbon at the side, or a dockable toolbar? How about an MDI type interface, or something like Apple’s Finder, where several minimalist explorer windows can share a common Ribbon?

Now we’re saddled with it in Windows Explorer. That’s just too much chrome; Ribbons take up space I’d rather use to manage files. And it has to be big as it is addressing the problem of a Touch UI for managing file systems. You could argue that the legacy file system is a dead duck. Most users don’t care about their file storage on their phone or tablet. Windows 7 introduced  libraries, content as king, collected as a library regardless of their actual location. So many libraries that users have to deal with fewer local files and folders, so the interface should become even simpler, not more complex. The Home-Tab, for example shows 23 commands at once! With things like “Copy path” or “Rename”. That are not necessary because you can copy the path from the address bar and you can rename a file by clicking on it.

Apple has tried to banish the file system, mostly since it just doesn’t seem to work on touch on any of their devices, it’s too fiddly and small.

But while you understand why Microsoft wants to create a new visual meme for traditional Menus that is touch friendly, the Ribbon is turning back to an old and clunky interface, poorly designed, cluttered and visually distracting. There is some customisation you can do, but how many people know about the “reduced ribbon?” What have we got as a concession? Ribbon hot-keys, not so easy to find and requires keys to be pressed in sequence.

Now there are those who believe the Ribbon is a great interface for an complex editing tool such the Office suite, but MS Paint? A file manager? Everyone developing for Linux is stripping down the file manager, perhaps too far. Anyone used the Dolphin file manager in KDE?

Search has gone horribly wrong since Vista. The search function in Windows 7 and 8  do not provide for effective searching for text.

Once again proven that the universal language of icons isn’t universal and most of the ribbon icons make no sense. Although sense may be subjective. I assume the Sharing menu has a Fax option because a lot of companies in the States still use fax machines?

Why didn’t Microsoft design Windows Explorer to be more like its web browser cousin Internet Explorer? AJS

If you want to read more on Microsoft’s thinking, see the MSDN blog entry – Sinofsky – Improved Windows Explorer

4 thoughts on “Opinion: New Explorer Ribbon in Windows 8

  1. Alt-Shift-Enter says:

    When I migrated from Office 2003 to Office 2007 I found the ribbon really annoying. I had gotten used to where my most used features were. After a while though, it struck me that alot of thought had gone in to taking the commonly used functions and making them quicker to access – assuming everything is mouse driven and not keyboard using some ALT-hotkey combination.

    I agree with your point on it not needing to be a horizontal ribbbon though. Most screens are wider than they are tall, it would make sense to have the option of having the ribbon vertical down the side of a page in Word or Excel.

  2. Droege Stachowiak says:

    Do we really need a control set so complex when the average user doesn’t understand file systems in the first place?

  3. WH says:

    I have spent 45 minutes searching the web trying to find how to run windows explorer in windows 8. All I can get is file explorer which is a cut down thing. God I hate Microsoft

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