New ideas for user interface components don’t come by very often. For example, the pointer, icons, and toolbars have been around since the late 1970′s courtesy of the work done at Xerox PARC. It’s safe to say that the computing environment in the late 70′s was quite a bit different than it is today, so it’s only logical that some of the paradigms developed then need a modern refresher.
There have been high profile attempts at designing new, complete, usable components to solve specific problems such as interactive assistants and horribly bloated CD lists. But in recent memory, all pale in comparison to the Ribbon that Microsoft introduced in Office 2007. The Ribbon is what replaced the toolbar system used in previous versions of Microsoft Office.
The ribbon effectively solves the problem of displaying the functionality of a very complex and feature-rich piece of software like Word or PowerPoint much more effectively than toolbars, tabs, and other competing concepts. In combination with gallery views of icons, and organising things in use-driven groups, the solution is elegant and ages well. It’s unfortunate (read: fucking brutal) that Microsoft is patenting this idea in the current climate of software openness and growth, but I digress.
Jensen Harris did a presentation at MIX ’08 about the history of Office and how the ribbon was developed. A must watch for any employed interface designer: the ideas about religious tenets, building lots of high-fidelity prototypes, evaluation over a number of months, and constraining ideas to make reasonable decisions are worth discussing.
YouTube video below, but the complete presentation is available from Microsoft.