One of the key concepts in the Office 2007 user interface is Contextual Tabs. Whenever an object is selected, the tools for working with that object are made available in the Ribbon. I've talked about them in an introductory article and just last week I posted a design history of the steps we took along the way.


Table Contextual Tabs in Office 2007 - Click to enlarge picture


Diagram Contextual Tabs in Office 2007 - Click to enlarge picture

A number of people have asked the question "When do Contextual Tabs appear?" Today, I thought I'd share the (fairly simple) algorithm underlying the design.

The first, incontrovertible rule is this: whenever an object is selected, the Contextual Tabs for that item are available. You can, of course, continue to use the core tabs, but the object-specific tools are also available. This rule applies 100% of the time, for all objects in Office. Pretty straightforward so far, eh?

Most of the time, what people are really asking is: "in which scenarios do the Contextual Tabs automatically bring themselves forward?" The answer to that is a tad more complex, but still basically straightforward.

  1. Whenever you insert an object, you are brought to the first tab of the Contextual Tab set for that object.
  2. Whenever you double-click an object, you are brought to the first tab of the Contextual Tab set for that object.

So far, so good. There's only one additional rule:

  1. If you deselect a selected object and then click right back on it without performing any other commands in-between, we put you back in the Contextual Tabs where you were before you deselected the object.

This third item was a feature called "lingering" that we added based on very early real-world research. What we found was that an extremely common scenario involved people using an object, clicking away from it to make the selection handles go away (to get a better look at it) and then clicking right back on the object to continue formatting it.

Before we made this change, someone would be using the Layout tab of the Chart Tools. They would click away for a second, then click back on the object and when they would go to use the Ribbon, they were suddenly back on the Sheet tab. Confusion reigned. Since implementing "lingering," the usability results on Contextual Tabs have become very solid.

So now you know the three rules which determine when we navigate to a Contextual Tab.