Microsoft is Redesigning the Office User Interface

Posted on June 13, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Office 365, Office with 68 Comments

For the first time in over a decade, Microsoft will redesign the user interface for its core Office-branded apps across platforms. The most dramatic change? It’s replacing the reviled ribbon with the tabbed toolbar found in today’s Office mobile apps.

Microsoft first hinted at this change back in April, when it revealed that it would stop developing the desktop application version of OneNote—called OneNote 2016 today—in lieu of OneNote for Windows 10, which was originally called OneNote Mobile.

The old ribbon in OneNote 2016 (top) and the new, simplified ribbon in OneNote for Windows 10 (bottom)

At the time, this decision seemed strange, as the other applications that make up the various Microsoft Office suites are full-featured desktop solutions, not mobile apps. And they feature the “full” ribbon user interface, not the tabbed toolbar found in OneNote for Windows 10 and the other Office Mobile apps. They aren’t just different kinds of apps, they look and work differently.

Well, that’s going to change.

Over time, Microsoft will adapt its various Office desktop and web apps to use the tabbed toolbar, or “simplified ribbon,” from the Office Mobile apps by default. Users who prefer the full ribbon, however, will be able to enable it.

Unfortunately, it will do so via a rather tortured and unclear schedule. And it will only do so for the Office apps on on the web and those that are provided with Office 365. That is, the coming generation of “perpetual” Office products, like Office 2019, will not be adapted to this new user interface.

It starts today with Word Online, the web version of Word, though only “select consumers” will see it at first.

The old ribbon in Word Online today (top) and the new, simplified ribbon that is coming soon (bottom).

Phase two involves the full Outlook application for Windows, which was a particularly bad fit for the ribbon UI. That application will get the simplified ribbon in July, Microsoft says.

After that, things get complicated. Because the three core Office applications—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—are so heavily used, Microsoft doesn’t want to upset users or render over a decade of experience moot. So it will get add the simplified ribbon to these applications at a later date, and it will provide an obvious way to switch back to the old ribbon.

And the new Office user interface isn’t just about the ribbon: It involves other on-screen elements as well. Microsoft is implementing new color schemes across the apps, starting again with Word Online. And it is designing truly scalable new icons for each app so that they look good on any display. Search is getting a major overhaul across the apps, too, Microsoft says.

More soon: Premium members, I’ll have a personal history of the Office ribbon post up today.

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Comments (68)

68 responses to “Microsoft is Redesigning the Office User Interface”

  1. Jaxidian

    Will this always be optional or will the tall ribbon be completely dying once this is done being phased in? I kinda like the larger ribbon (I never do Office stuff on mobile and my monitors range in size from 27" to 43", so saving screen space isn't terribly important to me)

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to Jaxidian:

      Eventually it will be thrown into a black hole and integrate itself with the 5th dimensional fabric of the cosmos. This is why the large-scale structure of the universe is made up of ribbons of galactic clusters.

      The ribbon’s influence now extends all the way from the Big Bang to the end of the universe!


  2. skane2600

    Kind of surprising given that wasting space has been what all the cool kids have been doing in recent years. Just look at the big generic picture at the top of the article that conveys no information relevant to the topic.

    Initially I found the ribbon a bit jarring after being accustomed to the old UI, but a decade should be long enough to get used to it. I suspect that changing it again will make more people unhappy than leaving it alone. It's not like every user has been using Office for more than 10 years.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to skane2600:

      . . . Just look at the big generic picture at the top of the article . . .

      C'mon. has to do its part to needlessly waste bandwidth.

      . . . It's not like every user has been using Office for more than 10 years. . . .

      True. Some have been using Office or its erstwhile alternatives for several decades (in my case, 3.5 decades). The menu changes from pre-Office to Office 95 were jarring, the changes from Office 2003 menu+toolbars to Office 2007 ribbon were jarring, and the latest changes for change's sake will also be jarring. MSFT just doesn't care about Office users' efficiency, maybe because the vast majority will never use it efficiently and the few who can adapt fast enough to make it moot.

  3. Patrick3D

    Anything to get rid of the ribbon is a worthy cause, nothing else has caused a greater loss of productivity for people that have to use Office on a daily basis.

  4. mebby

    Currently I am more productive with the full ribbon than the streamlined versions on the Online or Mobile versions. Seems like I do more hunting (drilling down menus or remembering key strokes...) on those. I would assume that over time they will be more streamlined. So being able to use either streamlined version or full version would be great.

    Simplifying to be like google is not something I want. This a from a person that can adapt to almost any time of UI. Using new UI's do not scare me. I want steady improvements to UIs that make me more productive.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to mebby:

      If you watch the video from the Office Blog post Paul posted to get the full bar you just click the button that changes the display of the ribbon today.

  5. Atoqir

    Classic Microsoft. They did it with fluent too ‘sometime in the near future we will gradually over time change feature X for a specif set of users in the Y insider ring if the right conditions are met’

    Why not do it like all the other software companies. ‘We worked on our new dark theme (Apple) or our new lay-out experience (Gmail) the past months. Available for everyone right now by pressing the ‘preview’ button. Ready and optional!

    Microsoft and UI...ugh

  6. remc86007

    Choice isn't a bad thing, but I think defaulting back to a pre-ribbon design is a bad move. Just glancing at that new ribbon and comparing it to the ribbon showing in Word on my work computer, multiple functions I use daily for my legal work would require more clicks than before.

  7. hrlngrv

    Great. One advantage for the perpetual version.

    My focus is Excel, which I use more in a typical week than everything else in Office put together in a typical month. Excel has a lot of features/capabilities. A simplified ribbon is OK for Excel Mobile, which lacks many desktop features so don't need to show features it lacks. Excel Web has more, and its ribbon is more expansive. Maybe there'd be a lot more context-specific tabs, but I don't look forward to customizing charts using a stripped-down ribbon.

    One thing I'm reasonably sure of: the 20% of users who use any of the uncommon 80% of features don't like those features moving around in the UI.

    If Office is too damn much for most users, perhaps it's time for MSFT to make a simpler version of Office and make the current full-featured individual desktop programs a la carte additions. In my case, I definitely don't use more than a few features in Word and PowerPoint, none in Publisher since I've never used it. OTOH, I'm one of the odd 'uns who uses maybe half of Excel's features.

    • SocialDanny123

      In reply to hrlngrv:

      So basically Office Mobile and Online?

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to SocialDanny123:

        Why bother with Mobile?

        I pay more attention to Excel than the rest of Office put together. In terms of Excel, the Mobile version has only one feature which the Online version lacks: array formula entry (though no problem using existing array formulas in uploaded workbooks). Otherwise, Online has more features than Mobile.

        Why not dump the Mobile version and make the Online version PWA? Wouldn't hurt to add array formula entry for Excel [note: Zoho's spreadsheet supports array formula entry, so unless Zoho has a patent on this as a hard computer science problem, so could Excel Web if MSFT gave a damn about it]. At that point, such PWA Office would be more than adequate for most non-work Office use, and adequate for a considerable amount of work Office use.

  8. dcdevito

    So...Microsoft is turning Office into Google docs then?

  9. rfog

    Oh, my god! It is full of tabbed toolbars!

    (Just remember Delphi/C++ Builder IDE toolbars).

    Yes, MS has discovered the Toolbars!

  10. scd147

    If Simplified = Doesn't do as much, no thank you. That's what they make Macs for.

  11. hrlngrv

    Listening to Windows Weekly while I'm writing this. Paul say: not everyone needs that stuff with respect to lots of the features in each Office program, especially Excel. Exactly. Most people don't need most of what Office provides. Most people don't even need everything Google Docs provides. The mistake here is believing 80% or more of Office users, especially home users, need Office rather than something like Works from a decade ago.

    Best to think of the Office 365 value proposition as a good price for 1TB online storage each for up to 5 accounts with a grossly bloated productivity suite thrown in for free.

    • skane2600

      In reply to hrlngrv:

      John Doe doesn't need everything in Office and Jane Smith doesn't need everything in Office, but what John needs from Office is different than what Jane needs from Office. And those needs can change over time. Thus a high-value application offers a broad range of features so that a user can find the features they need and can grow into the application as their needs become more sophisticated.

      • Bats

        In reply to skane2600:

        Those needs change in time? So....paying $99/year for things your not going to use is what? Insurance? Dumb idea. $69/$99 can be put to better use, than to just use a glorified word processor. Not even Paul Thurrott uses that much.

        Seriously, the only great thing about Office 365 is the 5 TB of hard drive space that it comes with.

        • skane2600

          In reply to Bats:

          If you have very modest needs just use the free web version of Office or free Google docs or maybe just notepad. It's not as if everyone using Windows bought Microsoft Office in the old days. It was always more for power users and yes, people used more features as they went along. Something that happens with just about any sophisticated program.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to Bats:

          . . . the only great thing about Office 365 is the 5 TB of hard drive space . . .

          Indeed. The bloated productivity suite is a cost-free extra.

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to skane2600:

        Try to find 2 people who have any use for the Bessel functions in Excel. Almost all the people who know what they are would need versions of those functions which accept fractional order parameters, something Excel doesn't support. Then there's PowerQuery, which is used by maybe 0.5% of people who have Excel up & running at least 4 hours/day and by less than 0.01% of people who use Excel less frequently.

        If you're going for an 80-20 rule, you'd need to amend it to something like 80% of users use less than 20% of available features, and while there's some variation about which 20% of features, all 80% use less than 40% of all available features. In all likelihood, another 15% use another 30%. The next 4% use another 15%, and the last 1% use another 10%, leaving 5% of features than maybe a half dozen people across the planet use. [E.g., Data Consolidate in Excel, a feature which ceased making sense in the early 1990s when Excel finally got multiple worksheets per workbook.]

        I'll only claim some expertise with Excel, but I'll wager that anyone who can't discuss the relative merits of VLOOKUP vs INDEX+MATCH would be able to do everything they've ever done in Excel using the Online/Web version.

  12. iantrem

    "Unfortunately, it will do so via a rather tortured and unclear schedule."

    So like Control Panel items in Windows 10? The continual guessing game of "is the feature I'm looking for on the tabbed toolbar or the ribbon"? The ribbon was introduced to make it easier to find all the previously "hidden" features, looks good but in terms of finding what you want, a step backwards.

  13. Otto Gunter

    I don't use the ribbon much, but that's because I have my most-used tasks pinned to the Quick Access Toolbar. Take that away and I really won't be happy, simplified ribbon or not.

  14. rameshthanikodi

    I never had a problem with the ribbon, but these days you've got to appease the Google Docs fan, I guess.

    A note about the new 'toolbar'...just like the old toolbars in the early 2000's, the simplicity is only superficial, it actually it masks complexity.

  15. Waethorn

    They're getting people used to the idea of having less tools in Office so they can pivot to Office Online more smoothly. Office Online is their future, but it's feature-limited compared to Office on Windows. It's just easier to pare away function from the desktop version than to implement them on the web version. Once they're equivalent, there's no incentive for anyone to buy the desktop version.

  16. Skolvikings

    Search is getting a major overhaul across the apps, too

    That's great news. Search in Outlook today is borderline non-functional.

  17. Tmann

    Less is more as they say. Looks like they are attempting to follow the leader in simplified UIs for better productivity. That would be Google Docs. G-Docs only gets better and better. I use Google's suite of office apps more and more each day because they are just more efficient and I find very little that I am missing these days from the MS Office suite.

    Paul, at some point would love to see your updated take / comparison on those two Productivity Suites as things keep evolving.


    • kevinbouwman

      In reply to Tmann:

      Often less is just less. As for Google Docs, I would hope it is getting better, I haven't looked at it for a long time but everything I remember was bad. As a multi-device user I get that the UI needs to be updated but full featured programs like Word and Excel demand "simplification" be approached with maximum care.

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to Tmann:

      Google Docs uses a combination of menu and toolbar much closer to Office 2003 than any more recent version with a ribbon. For example,

      What I find annoying about the post-Office 2007 ribbon is just how many Office 2003 and prior dialogs still appear. For anyone who believes MSFT will expend any resources making Windows 10 more consistent, take a look at Excel's Go To and Special Cells dialogs, which haven't changed since Excel 5 from the mid-1990s.

    • lvthunder

      In reply to Tmann:

      Google Docs is not the leader. Just because you use it doesn't make them the leader. They are just using the simplified UI so it works better on tablets and phones. They are using it everywhere so there isn't confusion between the devices. They want it smooth sailing between devices. That's also why they are allowing you to write custom Excel functions in Javascript instead of VBA.

  18. Stooks

    Yeah just keep changing stuff for change sake Microsoft. Nothing pushes users away faster. In 2018 they have choices, lost of them. Example, once I knew that OneNote, the full version, was being retired and future versions were the UWP version, I moved hundreds of notes out of OneNote and over to something else and never looked back.

    The simplified Word ribbon above looks like Word 2003.

  19. djross95

    Given Microsoft's recent development pace, it should be finished 4-5 years from now.

  20. Tony Barrett

    If MS do anything, they should give users the option of dumping the ribbon altogether. Just give us menus and toolbars back. It was an awful design choice that made no sense, and still causes many to struggle with the UI - hunting for options, trying to find tiny buttons etc. Despite Microsoft's thinking, very few liked the ribbon - it actually made using Office harder!

    • katsumibisk

      In reply to ghostrider:

      The menu system had all those same problems of hunting for stuff

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to katsumibisk:

        To some extent. However, there are people who learn the keystroke commands for vi or EMACS and are more productive using those editors with their inscrutable UIs than they would be using, say, Notepad++ or VS Code. Ditto with menus once one know where their particular 20% of features are located.

        For me, as long as there's still a customizable QAT, I don't care what's in the ribbon.

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to ghostrider:

      Yes. I always loved having to piddle around in menus and submenus to find what I need.

      It was more fun than a Laurel and Hardy sketch.


  21. LocalPCGuy

    I've never liked the ribbon. However, starting with Office 2010 Microsoft let us shrink it to a menu bar by clicking on the "up" carat. This is much cleaner easy for people to implement. To see the ribbon for any menu item just click on it. Less clutter.

    • jecouch66

      In reply to LocalPCGuy:

      I'm pretty sure you could always double click or right click on the ribbon to shrink it. I always liked the ribbon better than the tools bars. Really, I'm not sure how it's all that different, to be honest. You have a tract of screen with stuff to click in both. I recognize everyone is different, but in my case it took about 10 seconds to get used to it. I'd say I'm with the guy who talked about the control panel/settings UI. Pick one and complete it, and move on.

      • hrlngrv

        In reply to jecouch66:

        . . . Pick one and complete it, and move on.

        Take a look at the latest version of Excel. Notice how many controls in the ribbon open dialogs which haven't changed since the early 1990s.

        Rather a staggeringly immense assumption that MSFT ever completes anything.

  22. cseafous

    I like it. Simple as the default with the option to make it more complex.

  23. wright_is

    Over time, Microsoft will adapt its various Office desktop and web apps to use the tabbed toolbar, or “simplified ribbon,” from the Office Mobile apps by default. Users who prefer the full ribbon, however, will be able to enable it.

    Given that I use a lot more features than are shown on the tab versions shown in the article, I am glad about the last bit. All the way through the article, to that point, I was asking myself how this would work, as the tabs only show a miniscule amount of functionality.

  24. txag

    I, too, would be happy if they gave me the option to back to the pre-ribbon interface. It never did anything for my productivity.

    • jesam

      In reply to txag:

      I still have Word 2003 at home and I hate it very much. I'm using the latest Office version at work and I never would want to go back to a menu based Word/Excel.

  25. TheJoeFin

    My first reaction was, NOOO!! Then I thought about how I use the Office ribbon and realized I click maybe 5% of the presented buttons. When the ribbon was first released it helped as an educational tool helping users understand these super complex programs. Now it seems Microsoft has been moving away from the monolith approach and toward a use case approach where new apps are developed and integrated into the Office Graph instead of those same features being built into Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or Outlook.

    I'll judge this new UX when I have time to get my hands on it, but hopefully this means Microsoft is slimming down and speeding up Office to better compete.

  26. DrPRW

    I may regret asking this, but what's wrong with Office as it stands now? Why are these changes necessary? Is it to keep people in their jobs (via the illusion of progress)? I work in education and a similar phenomenon is apparent. We always talk about improving things with no data indicating things need improving! Change just because?

  27. bluvg

    We're almost back to Word 1.0 for UI.

    This shuffling of the deck chairs is frustrating when there are other long-standing issues to be resolved. Co-authoring that works, scales, and performs as well as Google Docs comes to mind.

  28. lvthunder

    As it looked in the video this simplified ribbon will be the default and if you click that down arrow that today switches the mode you can go back to the bigger ribbon. I'm glad to see them try to make stuff easier.

  29. karlinhigh

    Because the three core Office applications—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—are so heavily used, Microsoft doesn’t want to upset users or render over a decade of experience moot. So it will get add the simplified ribbon to these applications at a later date, and it will provide an obvious way to switch back to the old ribbon.

    But they had no such concerns when they first introduced the ribbon. Wonder what changed?

  30. Jedi Dwight

    "it will provide an obvious way to switch back to the old ribbon."

    This sounds rather un-Microsoft; I like it.