One of the most discussed aspects of the new Office 2007 UI has been: "Does it take up too much room?"

It isn't a straightforward question to answer, above all because to answer it requires a subjective opinion. What seems just right to one person might seem to another person to be too much.

So today, I'm going to try to take an objective look at the size of the new UI just by presenting the facts--and then you can form your own opinion. I'll also discuss some of the background about why we made the design decisions we did.

One of the tricky things about measuring the size of the Office user interface is figuring out what to measure. The size of the Office 97-2003 user interface, in particular, is greatly affected by the number of toolbars and Task Panes brought up to use the features in the product.

To sidestep that problem for the time being, I'm going to compare the out-of-box experiences of Office 97 and Office 2007. Why these two versions? First of all, Office 97 was the first version of Office with command bars, and it's the version often cited as representing a cleaner, smaller brand of UI. It's also before the introduction of Task Panes, so we don't have to take that into account. Also, it was (and is) an extremely successful version of Office which many people have installed, so it seems like a good comparison.

Why measure the out-of-the-box experience? Given that fewer than 2% of Office 2003 users customize their UI according to the data reported through the Customer Experience Improvement Program, the out-of-the-box experience is the one most users will see.

Furthermore, the out-of-box-experience is the mainstream experience which paints the old UI in the most positive light, primarily because it includes only the default toolbars--not all of the other ones which regularly appear as part of using the product.

Nonetheless, this comparison at least gives us some basic numbers to work with. All screenshots were taken in Windows XP at 1024x768 screen resolution with the Office window maximized.


Word 97 vs. Word 2007: Out of the box

Here are comparison pictures of Word 97 and Word 2007. The same document is loaded in both, and you can see that the text in each line as well as the line spacing match up exactly.


Word 97 - Click to enlarge


Word 2007 - Click to enlarge

Word 2007 document area: 1007 x 573 pixels
Word 97 document area: 979 x 573 pixels

Horizontally, you gain 28 pixels of space in Word 2007 out-of-the-box. On a web layout or landscape-oriented document, this advantage would be most useful.

Results: Arial 10 pt., Page Layout View

Word 97: 26 lines of text
Word 2007: 26 lines of text

So there it is. You can fit the same number of lines on the screen, out-of-box, in Word 97 and Word 2007.

We achieved this relative parity in terms of the size of the document workspace by cleaning up some other parts of the UI. We changed the horizontal scroll bar to only appear when necessary, and moved the view switcher buttons into the status bar. We also designed the rulers (which data indicate most people never use) to AutoHide, and added a quick toggle button to turn it on or off at the top of the vertical scroll bar.

Another way to visualize the comparison is by laying the document areas side by side. Because the Ribbon consolidates the UI into one space, it pushes the document down in the window a bit--giving the illusion of there being less space than there really is.

Here are the document areas of the 1024x768 maximized windows laid side by side. Notice that the lines of text line up exactly vertically, although the words don't line up due to the more precise positioning of letters in Word 2007's ClearType.


Comparison of document space - Click to enlarge


Excel 97 vs. Excel 2007: Out of the box

The Excel numbers paint a similar story to the one we just saw in Word.


Excel 97 - Click to enlarge


Excel 2007 - Click to enlarge

Excel 97 document area: 1004 x 581 pixels
Excel 2007 document area: 1008 x 534 pixels

Horizontally, there's more space in the new version by default, vertically there's a little less. As with all of these comparisons, this assumes that the Office 97 user isn't showing any toolbars except for Standard and Formatting.

In terms of rows and columns, the amount of data on the screen ends up being similar.

Results: Arial 10pt., Normal View

Excel 97: 31 rows, 15 columns
Excel 2007: 30 rows, 15 columns

The default cells in Excel 2007 are a single pixel less tall--not really perceptible when looking with the naked eye, but it's enough to bring the amount of data on the screen to within one row.

What this shows me is that, more than the UI or anything else, if you're interested in getting more data on the screen in Excel, optimizing the font choice and cell size is by far your most important lever. Even minuscule changes have a large effect over many rows or columns.


PowerPoint 97 vs. PowerPoint 2007: Out of the box

PowerPoint's usable canvas can be measured best based on the size of the slide that fits in the window. Because of its unique slide scaling behavior, PowerPoint is the most directly impacted equally by both horizontal and vertical dimensions.


PowerPoint 97 - Click to enlarge


PowerPoint 2007 - Click to enlarge

PowerPoint 97 document area: 1008 x 575 pixels
PowerPoint 2007 document area: 1024 x 573 pixels

A similar story to Word and Excel: more horizontal space, a tad less vertical room. The impact on the size of the slide itself is minimal. In fact, the default AutoFit zoom level within the available space is exactly the same between the versions.

Results: Normal View

PowerPoint 97: 76% zoom
PowerPoint 2007: 76% zoom

PowerPoint was the only program to ship with three toolbars turned on in Office 97, so it is not surprising that the size comparison is a dead heat.

As with Word, because the slide is positioned further down in the window in PowerPoint 2007, it gives the illusion of a smaller workspace than actually exists.


The Design Process

That ends the simple, factual, out-of-the-box comparisons. The numbers are on the table.

For the vast majority of people who use the product without spending tons of time tweaking every setting, the new UI will give them about the same amount of workspace as they would have had in Office 97 on the same computer.

Of course, today, we're designing for much larger screens than would have been common back in 1996. The most common screen resolutions for Office 97 were 640x480 and 800x600. The most common screen resolutions for Office 2007 will be 1024x768 and 1280x1024 (with a fairly sizable percentage running even higher resolutions).

As a percentage of average available screen size, the Office 2007 UI takes far less space than the Office 97 UI would have on a 640x480 monitor. As you've seen, even when you equalize the screen size, the work areas are similar. The result is that far more of your bigger screen is used to show your document, as it should be.

But also keep in mind--we think about the Ribbon as a kind of flat tax. Unlike the toolbars model, where new UI was constantly coming up and taking extra space on the screen, the Ribbon never gets any larger.

What if you need the Reviewing and Drawing tools in Word 97? Suddenly, you can only see 23 lines of text instead of 26 lines of text. What if you ever inserted a Picture? Now you've got the Picture toolbar covering up your document--or dock it and lose another 2 lines of text. Or maybe you need the Table toolbar? There goes another 2 lines of text.

This build-up of "extra" stuff is one of the most common complaints about the menus and toolbars-based UI. Once a toolbar comes open, people don't want to close it because they fear losing it. Experts, of course, know how to manage all of the UI widgets on the screen, but more often than not when we do site visits to watch people use Office in their place of business, their screen looks like this:


Stuff everywhere taking up room in Office 2003 - Click to enlarge

I wrote about how the Ribbon doesn't degrade over time in March, but this same aspect of the UI has a profound impact on size. As more and more clutter is added to the mix, the Ribbon's advantage in screen real-estate usage becomes pronounced.

With the addition of even one additional toolbar in any of the programs, the Ribbon already comes out ahead (even measuring at the exact same resolution!)


But What About... Task Panes?

As you may remember, Office XP and Office 2003 boot up with the Task Pane turned on. Because most of the command Task Pane usage scenarios have been absorbed into the new UI, we no longer boot with it on in the new UI programs of Office 2007.


Getting Started Task Pane in Office 2003 - Click to enlarge

If we pedantically wanted to look at true "out-of-the-box" for Office 2003 vs. Office 2007, we'd have to consider the space taken up by the Task Pane.

In default Office 2003, for instance, the Task Pane is 200 pixels wide, greatly decreasing the amount of space you get in each program. You only need to watch the candidates on The Apprentice use Office 2003 with the unused Getting Started Task Pane open all of the time to realize that most people don't spend the time to get these pixels back. (We see this frequently in site visits as well.)

Any sort of UI space comparison between Office 2007 and Office 2002/2003 with the Task Pane on comes out with the new UI far in front. I went through some of those numbers last September.


But What About... Rafted Toolbars?

Starting in Office 2000, the ability to "raft" toolbars on to a single line was introduced. The out-of-box retail experience included this feature turned on in some cases.

Turning this option on saves you 25 vertical pixels because the Standard and Formatting toolbars share a single line. On the other hand, this design proved to be confusing because the presence and position of toolbar buttons is constantly changing, trying to optimize themselves based on your use.

The vast majority of business customers, therefore, turn this feature off as part of deploying the product. Many computer manufacturers also turn it off because of the support calls it generates. So, while this design might have made for a great screenshot, not many people use this product in this mode and therefore I'm not going to spend a lot more time discussing it as a common scenario.

Suffice it to say, "rafting" is one way a person could have taken back 25 vertical pixels in the old UI.

If you're struggling with this feature in Office 2000/XP/2003, you can turn it off easily. Click Customize on the Tools menu, and then on the Options tab, check the box next to Show Standard and Formatting toolbars on two rows.


But What About... Customization?

Once you get beyond out-of-box experience, you're in the realm of the few who spend time customizing their Office workspace to optimize the use of space.

As I've mentioned before, the data indicates that fewer than 1 in 50 people have customized their Office UI, which is one of the reasons I've spent up until now discussing the mainstream out-of-box experience.

But it is true that both Office 97-2003 and Office 2007 provide affordances for those who wish to spend time customizing in order to get more space for their document.

Getting Space Back in Office 97-2003

  • If you have a big enough monitor, you might be able to move certain toolbars onto a single line, depending on their size.
  • You could turn off all of the built-in toolbars and create a custom toolbar with the set of buttons you want.
  • You could turn off the toolbars and use menu accelerators and keyboard shortcuts to perform all tasks. Because not all features are in the menu system, you would have to move buttons from toolbars or the command well into the menu system in order to use them via the keyboard.

Getting Space Back in Office 2007

  • You can collapse the Ribbon, either by double-clicking the selected tab or by pressing CTRL+F1 on the keyboard. The entire bottom part disappears, leaving only a single row of tabs across the top.


Collapsing the Ribbon in Office 2007 - Click to enlarge

  • You can use the keyboard system to use all features in the Ribbon while it's collapsed. Because all features have efficient keyboard access, you don't need to mess around in the command well, adding features to menus to get keyboard access to work. (Note: in Beta 2, the Ribbon expands when using KeyTips... we're hoping to have this solved for RTM.)
  • You can add controls from the Ribbon to your customizable Quick Access Toolbar. You can even add groups of features as a single icon to save space. Of course, you could collapse the Ribbon and use only your custom Quick Access Toolbar, giving you tons of space back. Note that because the Quick Access Toolbar receives automatic KeyTips, you also have hyper-efficient keyboard access to these features or groups of controls.
  • You could use RibbonX, the XML-based extensibility model for the new UI, to replace the entire Ribbon (or a tab of the Ribbon) with a custom user interface designed by you.
  • One last note about Office 2007: Because additional UI elements never come up without you requesting them (toolbars, Task Panes, etc.), you can rely on the space considerations remaining static over time.


Summary

Whew, this has been a long post--but it's an important topic so I wanted to make sure to give it the space it deserved.

In short, the majority of people who use Office 2007 will have about as much space for their document content as they would have running Office 97 on the same computer. Someone who used several toolbars or the Task Pane will likely get more space for their document content in Office 2007.

Given today's average screen resolution, the Office 2007 UI will take up a historically small percentage of the average window size.

And, if you are one of the few willing to customize to make more space, there are many options available, both in the old UI and the new UI.

Is the Ribbon larger than a toolbar? Of course. Is it bigger than all of the UI it replaces? In most cases, no.

We really have attempted to preserve as much space as possible for the document canvas while ensuring that the Ribbon has enough room to host all of the UI of the product in one location--a key usability goal.

In common, long-term usage of the product, I believe that most people will end up with more usable document space in Office 2007 applications than in any previous version of Office.