The Ribbon Man, Part 1

3 Jun, 2008

An interview with Autodesk's Matt Stein about the much-discussed ribbon interface in AutoCAD 2009.

Matt Stein
Matt Stein earned a bachelor of science degree in computer science from the University of California Santa Barbara. He started as an Autodesk intern at age 14 and has worked his way through a variety of roles to his current position as a senior product designer on the AutoCAD team.
The new face of AutoCAD 2009 represents the biggest user interface overhaul since Release 13. The ribbon is the most prominent of many interface changes, and for some users it's the most controversial. The man responsible for making the ribbon work in AutoCAD is senior product designer Matt Stein. In this two-part series, Cadalyst contributing editor Steve Johnson talks with Stein about how the ribbon and other new user-interface (UI) elements made their way into AutoCAD.

Steve Johnson (SJ): Matt, what exactly do you do?

Matt Stein (MS): As a product designer, my primary responsibility is designing and researching new features for AutoCAD. This process typically goes through many phases: a research phase, a conceptual design phase, and a detailed specification phase, along with substantial usability and customer validation across all phases. I work with customers and am in contact with them at every phase of the product cycle. My team comprises subject matter experts, interaction designers, and user researchers.

SJ: How do you interact with other Autodesk teams?

MS: There are two primary types of interaction with other Autodesk teams: interaction with teams working on AutoCAD and with teams outside of AutoCAD.

In my role working with feature teams, the product designer takes the product requirements defined by product management and begins to explore possible design solutions. Once an overall concept for a feature has been chosen and reviewed by the key stakeholders, feature development gets under way. Meanwhile, the designer is completing a very detailed specification of the design that details all of the interactions and functionality. AutoCAD is a large program with many considerations to take into account for even the smallest of features.

The second type of interaction is with outside teams. For AutoCAD, some of the most important outside teams are the ones that build the vertical applications on top of AutoCAD: AutoCAD Architecture, AutoCAD MEP, AutoCAD Map, etc. We need to ensure that when designing something for AutoCAD it does not break or affect something in one of the verticals. We try to be as thorough as possible in researching the impact a new feature or an update to an existing feature in AutoCAD will have across the board.

SJ: How does Autodesk make decisions like introducing the ribbon to AutoCAD?

MS: The introduction of the ribbon is part of a larger effort to improve our customers' productivity — making AutoCAD easier to use than ever. We addressed a number of UI changes, including the ribbon, plus things like the menu browser and our user assistance tools. We also added new capabilities like Quick Views and Quick Properties to see more information at your fingertips.

But with the ribbon specifically, the introduction came down to a few key reasons. Firstly, here in the halls, people who were familiar with the ribbon feature team for AutoCAD 2009 will tell you that the ribbon is actually Dashboard Version 3. I still have a copy, somewhere, of the initial specification with that exact title. Our Dashboard feature already shared many of the same base functionalities that the Microsoft Office Ribbon contains, e.g., rich controls (not just buttons), an organized layout (Control Panels versus Office's Chunks). In AutoCAD, we used Workspaces to switch between different Dashboard Control Panel sets; in the Office Ribbon, tabs are used.

We wanted to improve upon our current Dashboard offering and start the evolution of the AutoCAD UI, and the introduction of the Office Ribbon gave us one large reason to do so. The Office Ribbon is such a radical departure from the existing paradigm of menus and toolbars and is deployed so widely that the ribbon interface will eventually become mainstream. From a consistency standpoint that made sense — many of our users have Office and AutoCAD running side by side. Having the applications behave somewhat consistently is important. Does this mean we follow Office to a T? No.

Once it was decided that we would go with our take on the ribbon — because the Office Ribbon was not entirely sufficient — we did our own due diligence and research into what an AutoCAD ribbon would become.

A lot of customer validation and research took place all over the world. This research was kick-started at Autodesk University 2006. Our customers and their needs were the driving force behind the philosophies behind our ribbon and the end result. The AutoCAD 2009 ribbon provides the following new capabilities that echo what our customers want from the application.

One Place for Users' Tools
We evaluated many user-submitted screen configurations. You would be surprised at how much noise there is on some screens. Random toolbars floating over the drawing canvas, a plethora of palettes floating in ad hoc locations, stacks of docked toolbars wasting horizontal and vertical space, etc. The complexity of the AutoCAD UI functionality allowed the user to get into trouble, and not all users knew exactly how to get back to a nice, clean slate.

With the ribbon, all of your tools are in place and the ribbon manages its layout and configuration to optimize it to the current amount of space available. This increases the predictability of a control's location and makes the user more productive over time.

Increasing Drawing Real Estate
Our customers create things and spend most of their time in the drawing canvas working directly with the drawing geometry. They don't want the interface taking up that valuable space.

When we first showed the ribbon to a group of users in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the one thing everyone liked was the ability to minimize the ribbon down to both the tab level and the panel level. This enabled them to increase the available drawing space and still access all of their tools from a click away. This early validation of the ribbon minimize mode was promising.

Tools for Current Tasks
AutoCAD contains roughly a thousand commands. Depending on how you count sub-options on commands, that number could easily be nearing 1,500 to 2,000. Consequently, AutoCAD is a difficult program to learn. Where is a new user to start?

The ribbon is contextual in nature and has the ability, although currently untapped, to bring commands and functionality to the user, rather than force the user to dig around through menus, toolbars, or take the time to learn every sub-option on a command.

For AutoCAD 2009, we evaluated a number of prototypes with users to hone in on the perfect starting configuration of ribbon tabs and panels. We also undertook a large-scale effort to let upwards of 200 users provide us with their recommendations on how they would configure the ribbon down to button level. Collating this data against our Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP) data was crucial in determining the final placement of certain tools.

Once we had our first stab of the ribbon content, we put it through the wringer again and continued to make small adjustments based on user feedback and reaction. The end result is a more predictable layout that is more intuitive for someone just learning the program.

SJ: What do you say to people who think you should have fixed up existing problems in AutoCAD rather than change the interface?

MS: I say we hear you, but there are always going to be times when we have to pay the cost to get something done so we are set for the future. We pay the cost for the ribbon now and the user benefits from it now and increasingly benefits from its evolution in the future. I think when we built the Dashboard back in AutoCAD 2007 we got the same kind of feedback: Why are you spending time on this? Now there are many people that love the Dashboard.

The ribbon and its future evolution are going to be the primary UI in AutoCAD for a long time to come. One of the ribbon's largest benefits is that it opens up the door to a much more interactive and contextual application. This is something that toolbars and pull-down menus could never give us.

SJ: How does the ribbon in AutoCAD differ from the one in Microsoft Office 2007?

MS: The ribbon differs in the following ways so our users' needs are met. The Office Ribbon does not have some key functionality that we needed:

Vertical orientation. The ribbon can be oriented vertically, just like the Dashboard previously. The ribbon is the Dashboard evolved. Out of the box, the ribbon is in the horizontal orientation, but it can be easily be placed vertically.

The ribbon in its Dashboard-like vertical orientation.

Fully customizable. The Office Ribbon is locked down and the content cannot be edited. This is not sufficient for our users. The AutoCAD 2009 ribbon can be fully customized just like menus and toolbars.

Floating ribbon. In Office, the Ribbon is a fixture of the UI. In AutoCAD, for the default horizontally docked state, the ribbon appears this way as well, but the ribbon is actually contained in the same palette window that features like the Sheet Set Manager and Tool Palettes use. When docked horizontally, we just turn off some of the heavier "window" elements so the ribbon looks like it's a native element of the user interface. The user can remove the ribbon from the docked horizontal location and either float it or dock vertically. Because it follows standard palette functionality, it can also be anchored to the left or right of the screen.

Tear-off panels. Similar to how toolbars can be floated, a ribbon panel can be torn off to be placed on a second monitor or anywhere else the user wishes. Multiple panels can be torn off and grouped in any number of groups.

The ribbon's tear-off panels.

Slideout panels. The user can slide out a panel of less-often-used tools from the main panel. These panels are transient or can be pinned open for repeated access.

Sliding out a panel from the ribbon.

In the Office Ribbon, either the full ribbon can be displayed or it can be minimized to the tabs. Our ribbon has both and adds an intermediary, which aims to give extremely quick access to tools without bringing up the whole ribbon. Simply rolling over the panel title in this mode will slide the panel out. The interaction is smart enough that you rarely get a false positive, but still don't have to wait long to access your tools.

Accessing a tab from a ribbon minimized to its intermediary state.

Slim titles. Real-estate savings were one of the primary goals of the ribbon, and we tried to thread this idea throughout the individual components of the ribbon. For users who use the full and minimize panels modes, after their motoric memory of the layout and location of items increases, they can go ahead and turn off the panel titles. The space savings is small, but we are increasingly becoming more aware of pixel wastage, and it all adds up.

The ribbon minimized completely.

Two types of contextual tabs. The Office Ribbon has the concept of Contextual Tabs, and when switched on, these tabs always take over the whole ribbon. AutoCAD has a variety of modes that called for Contextual Tabs whose panels were always visible without having the related tab actually selected. The Block Editor and Reference Editing modes use this functionality.

The ribbon in Block Editor mode.

Next week, Johnson concludes the interview by asking Stein some probing questions about AutoCAD's new interface and its future direction. Read Part Two.