Microsoft is Redesigning the Office User Interface

Posted on June 13, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Office, Office 365 with 70 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 Office.com 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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