In the near future, when you reach up to select a menu item in Microsoft Word, you might discover the icons are in a slightly different place. For some of us, this is a major reason to panic. You might pick up your laptop and use it like a Frisbee.
That's because, after so many years working in an office setting, you've developed a "muscle memory" when it comes to clicking on software options. In a browser, you know exactly where the back button is located, and you could probably click on it without looking. It's even more pronounced in an app like Outlook because you're probably flying through a series of email. (I'm known to click through emails so fast I look like a chipmunk on coffee.)
In the coming weeks and months, you might find that the icons have changed. Microsoft is testing a new simplified look and feel for the ribbon, which is where you click to select fonts, save documents in Word, or start a new email. It might even scare you a little.
Here's how the new interface looks, with a truncated row of icons:
Fortunately, there's hope. It's all by design.
"Customers told us they love the heritage that Office carries, but they also told us they needed it to be simpler," says Jon Friedman, the Chief Design Officer at Microsoft, speaking to Inc.com. "We found the balance of muscle memory and pushing design limits is different for different people, so we embarked on this journey to deliver an Office experience that felt familiar, but still adapts to the changing, modern workplace."
That journey led to a new ribbon that mainly gives you only a few icons, for copy and paste, for selecting a font, and for setting the indents on a paragraph. In Outlook, if you use the online version of Microsoft Office called Office 365 and available at Office.com, the ribbon is so streamlines you will only see a few commands. You can drop in other icons.
And, there's more good news. Friedman told me that Microsoft wanted to make sure all users have the look and feel they want. He talked about something called empathic design--making sure everyone is able to use an app and that Microsoft understands their needs. The menu in Microsoft Office apps can expand easily to show the "classic" menu, so if you are used to clicking in the same place when you work, the icons will still show up exactly the same.
That's the challenge with productivity software. Microsoft has a billion Office users, and even small tweaks lead to mass hysteria. If you're Adobe or Google or Facebook, you have such a massive user base that it can be hard to know what users want to keep and what they don't like. Even moving one icon a half-inch over on a ribbon can cause problems.
Friedman told me they test users over and over, noting how they use muscle memory for commands and when they go searching for deeper features.
"While testing Outlook's new ribbon, we learned that people really liked the simplified version but kept having to open the classic ribbon to find commands they needed," he says. "It turned out that people use the same ten commands 95% of the time but still need a level of customization for that 11th, 12th and 13th command, which are all different based on a user's personal preference and what they work on most. With this insight we added a pinning function so people could add commands to the new ribbon that weren't there by default."
In the end, it's a major challenge. We want to become more productive and discover new features, but we also want to keep things the same. We're fickle. Microsoft plans to test the ribbon over the next few months and see what people really think.