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Comparing MS Office and LibreOffice Ribbon Introduction and Keyboard Shortcuts

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With Office 2007, Microsoft introduced the Ribbon which replaced the menu-based interface. There were many complaints because there was no option to enable the menus, the ribbon concept was not implemented properly, and the keyboard shortcuts were broken in oh so many ways. Therefore, Office professionals were not able to use their learned skills to do their jobs. Almost a disaster for Microsoft and surely a disaster for their customers from an usability point of view.

The Advantages of Ribbons Compared to Menu Bars

With the next Office releases, most of those points were addressed properly, fixing the user experience to a level which is acceptable again.

I found the concept of ribbons quite amazing. I have to emphasize that I refer to the concept and not the implementation by Microsoft. A bit of context-sensitive, graphical selection of features using dynamic ribbons. Just the features you might need in the current situation. What a great idea. Even non-dynamic ribbons provided a better learnability and usability using icons and spacial memory instead of misleading words in endless nested menu bars. It is crucial that the standard ribbons can not be personalized in order to maintain the advantage of spacial memory even when switching computers.

The biggest advantage of ribbons to my side is that new users of WYSIWYG text processing tools or office tools are able to be productive really fast. No need to get an overview on all the necessary and unimportant menu item points, no need to know what a certain menu item entry actually means.

Notebookbars in LibreOffice 5.3

With the latest update on LibreOffice, the office suite provides the experimental feature of ribbons (as «Notebookbars») as well. LibreOffice learned from the experience of Microsoft: ribbons are an option, not a total replacement of menu bars. You can even enable both: ribbons and the menu bar. And the ribbon comes with two flavors: static ones and a dynamic one. The dynamic ribbon shows only context-relevant features, the static one shows the standard «tabbed» ribbons.

You can activate the LibreOffice ribbons via: Tools > Options (Alt+F12) > Advanced > Enable experimental features + restart LibreOffice

The ribbons can be shown using: View > Toolbar Layout > Notebookbar

You can switch from the static, «tabbed» notebookbar to the dynamic one via View > Notebookbar > Contextual groups

Keyboard Shortcuts

Another subtle but great improvement is that LibreOffice menus show the keyboard shortcut right beneath the menu items. For example Edit > Paste has changed to: Edit > Paste Ctrl+V

This was long overdue. Professional users rely on keyboard shortcuts and displaying the shortcut in the menu bar is a tremendous advantage in the learning phase.

Microsoft did something terrible with Office 2007 and later: they moved away from the standard keyboard shortcuts their professional users know by heart. Instead, they moved to a «visual» map of keyboard shortcuts. You have to press Alt which enables the general keyboard shortcut mode. This, by the way, is the first time in computing history to my knowledge, when Alt is not a modifier key any more. Big no no. After pressing Alt, the user gets shown arbitrary letters on the ribbons. So the user types the letter of the ribbon where his command is located. Then the target ribbon is shown with further more letters (sometimes multiple!) on the icons.

When using the keyboard «shortcut», you have to remember the ribbon letter and the letters of the command. Which is a horror: previously, keyboard shortcuts (Microsoft, did you notice the word «short»?) were like Ctrl-P or Ctrl-U and similar. Those keyboard shortcuts require one or two modifier keys and one letter. Two to three keys pressed at once.

Now, we do have to press Alt and at least two letters which requires the user to press three keys in the right order, one after another. And most keyboard shortcuts are not mnemonic any more. I can not put it into words how worse the user experience got. For example: keyboard shortcuts Word 2016 vs. LibreOffice 5.3:

Function LibreOffice Writer 5.3 Word, Office 2016
Bold Ctrl+B Alt H 1
Italic Ctrl+I Alt H 2
Increase font size Ctrl+] Alt H F G
Decrease font size Ctrl+[ Alt H F K
Adjust left Ctrl+L Alt H A L
Adjust centered Ctrl-E Alt H A C
Adjust right Ctrl-R Alt H A R

While LibreOffice 5.3 requires one or two modifier keys together with one letter which can be pressed simultaneously, Word requires a sequence of three to four distinct keys that are mostly non-mnemonic such as digits.

The intention of Microsoft clearly was to provide a more visual way of learning keyboard shortcuts. They did this nice step-by-step process of finding the right command in order to guide the user to the keyboard shortcut. If you follow the pattern, this change improved the process of finding a shortcut in the first place. On the other hand side: the usage of keyboard shortcut got tedious. You notice the imbalance? Users learn keyboard shortcuts by accessing them let's say a dozen times. Users actually use keyboard shortcuts hundreds of times or thousands of times. From my point of view, learning a shortcut got better while applying a keyboard «short»cut got much worse. I stopped using them.

I am glad that LibreOffice seems to have learned this lesson: keeping keyboard shortcuts and the menu bar the same. Let us hope that this does not get worse with future releases.

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