The Ribbon Man, Part 2

9 Jun, 2008

The second installment of an interview with Autodesk's Matt Stein about AutoCAD 2009's ribbon interface.

Last week in part one of this series, Cadalyst contributing editor Steve Johnson spoke with Autodesk senior product designer Matt Stein about the process that led to the ribbon and other new user interface (UI) elements making their way into AutoCAD. In part two, Johnson asks some probing questions about AutoCAD's new interface and its future direction.

Steve Johnson (SJ): What does the ribbon give to AutoCAD users that they didn't already have?

Matt Stein (MS): There are two parts to this answer: Firstly, what the ribbon UI — the actual controls and form factor — give the user, and secondly what the philosophy behind the content populating the ribbon brings.

The Ribbon UI
One place to organize all of your commands and rich controls, the ribbon is meant to be the container for all of your commands and controls. The ribbon is a single unit comprising a robust hierarchy of tabs, panels, rows, and subpanels. Toolbars and menus both have a very limited, constrained approach to both the form factor of their contents as well as the overall layout. There are things we want to do in the future for the content in the ribbon that could not be done (easily) with toolbars.

Real-estate awareness. Toolbars and menus do one thing constantly, and that is take up space. The menu bar always takes up one row of the UI. Depending on the number of toolbars you have, that is another one to three rows. With the ribbon, you can minimize down to just the panel titles or the tabs. This global ability to minimize the core of the UI and access it again quickly is very powerful and was not previously achievable.

Compact, intelligent UI. The ribbon knows how much room it has. Whereas toolbars and menus would previously be truncated, the ribbon elegantly sizes its contents down. Large buttons become small, panels will collapse to buttons, text will temporarily hide itself. This ensures that the UI always remains accessible.

Contextual by nature. One of the guiding principles of the ribbon is to be able to respond to the current context of the application. Having one area of the interface to access tools no matter what the context makes the product more efficient and easier to learn as well. Users don't have to learn how to use a new dialog; they only have to learn how to use the ribbon.

The Ribbon Content
By ribbon content, I am referring to hierarchy of ribbon tabs, panels, and ultimately buttons and other controls that make up the ribbon. A lot of effort was made to make the out-of-the-box ribbon work well for both the new user to AutoCAD and the expert user. We mined user data, usability studies, CEIP data, and beta feedback to tweak the content hundreds of times.

The overarching theme around the content was to organize all of the tools available in AutoCAD based on the current task being performed — the ribbon is commonly referred to as a task-based user interface. The goal of the Home Tab was to ensure that the most common controls the user needs are always available. Parts of the Standard Toolbar, the Draw Toolbar, and the Modify Toolbar were directly sucked into the ribbon. Next we ensured that the most common annotation tools (dimension, mleaders, text) were available as well as block-related functionality. Finally, the common properties for color, linetype, etc., are also present, along with a Utility Panel with some navigation and common selection commands.

When you populate the task-based content into the ribbon UI, the result you get is a well-thought-out, predictable user experience that responds to the context of what the user is doing. Now and in the future, if you use the ribbon, it will start to tell you what you can do with AutoCAD. Prior to AutoCAD 2009, I found it to be more of a treasure hunt. "I didn't know this functionality existed" is something I don't expect to hear very much with the ribbon.

SJ: Do you think the ribbon reacts quickly enough to user input?

MS: Yes and no. The performance when switching tabs is a pain point for some users with slower machines and could be zippier in general. I think for invoking commands, the ribbon is plenty fast.

SJ: What do like most about the way AutoCAD 2009's ribbon has been implemented?

MS: I like the ribbon as a complete package, but if I had to select one thing, I would say the Minimize Panels option. It is the zippiest portion of the ribbon and feels the most fluid to me in terms of the user experience and the goals of the ribbon in saving real estate and providing all of the user's tools in one place. With Minimize Panels, the panels collapse down to just their titles and appear only when the mouse moves over them.

Secondly, and I think it is important to note, a lot of care was put into the layout of each panel, what button (if any) was the large button and what controls were placed on the main portion of the ribbon panel and which ones would go in the slideout panel.

It was such an undertaking to find a home for nearly every command in AutoCAD, plus a large number of system variables and rich controls such as style drop-downs and sliders. The content changed so many times, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in large ways. There were many late nights of pizza and sushi discussing placement of individual buttons based on customer data we had available to us. Whether it was the latest usability test or a new slice of data from our CEIP program, a new user to AutoCAD will have a much easier time figuring out where to begin now, versus before when a lot of the commands were hidden in deep menu hierarchies and toolbars. Right off the bat, the user is exposed to Blocks, Dimensions, Text, Multileaders, the Draw Tools, Modification Tools, Layers, Properties, and some of our selection and zoom mechanisms.

SJ: What do you like the least?

MS: Customizing the ribbon should be easier than it is now. We are actively working on ways to improve this experience. In the future, we have grander plans for the ribbon customization: Notably, in-place customization on the ribbon interface directly.

SJ: People who customized the Dashboard in AutoCAD 2008 won't be happy to see it gone with no migration path for their work. What have you got to say to those people?

MS: The AutoCAD 2009 release was a major undertaking. In addition to adding new productivity functionality to the core application, the efforts with the UI were huge. We organized thousands of functions within the ribbon, functionality that has been added to the application over a period of more than 25 years. The end result is a great release, but we didn't get the Dashboard customization in. I, too, wish we had, and it will certainly be something the AutoCAD team is focused on delivering in future releases.

SJ: Explain the reasoning behind the button images losing their color.

MS: The overall goal was to put the focus on the drawing canvas and not have the interface elements pull the user's focus away. I wasn't too excited about this at first (I happen to like the Office-style icons), but then all of the icons started coming in and the ribbon started coming to life and I think the end result is great. This is the same reason our ribbon has a predominantly more flat look versus the glossy, chrome of the Office Ribbon. The focus is on the drawing data, not the surrounding interface elements.

There is also an effort across the company to unify the icon system (among other things): Why does the line tool icon in Inventor look different from the one in AutoCAD and vice versa. By using common icon language across the product suites, it will increase the learnability and interoperability of those products at the user-experience level.

SJ: The Autodesk products based on AutoCAD don't seem to be making use of the ribbon. Why not?

MS: Time. AutoCAD is a general design tool, a very powerful one, but it does not have any built-in industry focus. Although the content was a very time-consuming portion of the design, it was less time consuming than it would have been for something like AutoCAD Architecture or Inventor to create the appropriate Contextual Tabs and base Ribbon Tabs.

SJ: There are a lot of other interface changes in AutoCAD 2009, with the Menu Browser being one of the biggest. Why do AutoCAD users need a Menu Browser, and why is there so much more in the Menu Browser than the equivalent offering in Microsoft Office?

MS: The user needs access to recent files, open documents, intuitive and visual command search, as well as the comfort of accessing the menu structure they already know. The Menu Browser provides that, plus it is nonintrusive, consistent enough with the Office version to promote learnability and familiarity, and, due to the content it hosts, it needed to have a larger form factor — something that would not have fit anywhere else in the UI, especially the ribbon.

SJ: I must say I really like AutoCAD 2009's floating toolbars, which are very space-efficient. I see space being wasted elsewhere on the screen, though. Why couldn't it all be as tight and neat as the floating toolbars?

MS: We always remain sensitive to both the perception of wasted space and wasting space in general.

In parallel with some of the visual design of the ribbon, there had been a decision to go with a two-row ribbon layout model as opposed to the three-row model that Microsoft Office employs. The driving force behind this was for real-estate savings. If we can make a two-row ribbon that is going to save an extra row for the user, then that is better, right?

Well, when it came down to it, we had a two-row ribbon that was using large button layouts that had two lines of text. That extra line of text was creating a large void near the bottom of the ribbon. We could have placed a third row on almost every panel that had this void. Adjusting some other margins would not have increased the ribbon's height at all. Unfortunately, this finding came far too late in the cycle for me to react. It would have meant revisiting nearly every panel in the ribbon; that type of large content change was too great.

SJ: What about the other interface changes? Pick three that you think will provide the most practical benefit to AutoCAD users.

MS: My three favorites are the ViewCube, Quick View Drawings and Layouts, and Quick Properties.

The ViewCube is just fun to use — and easy to use. It is dead simple to change the view of the model.

With Quick View Drawings and Quick View Layouts, we took a large step, innovation-wise, in providing something that is easy to use, fun, and practical. Both of these utilities allow you to switch to a drawing or layout by navigating a tree of thumbnails versus a textual list. We have more ideas for making these better and are aware of some of the limitations.

Quick Properties is a great feature that brings properties that the user has customized to the mouse cursor when the user selects an object. These properties are customizable, so only the properties the user wants to appear show up. You no longer have to dig through the property palette; the properties come to you.

SJ: If you could go back in time and change one thing about the way the AutoCAD 2009 interface development was handled, what would it be?

MS: I would have never had Quick Properties married to the ribbon in any way. It should have been developed independently. We spent too much time trying to do something that just wasn't working. In hindsight, I would have rather had made that decision quickly so we would have time for other aspects of the release.

On the flip side to the question, one thing we did do with the ribbon development that went extremely well was a new designer and developer workflow. This was made possible by the introduction of Windows Presentation Foundation and a technology called XAML. This gave the designers more flexibility in coming up with the final solutions. Many of the small subtle changes that went into the product based on user feedback would not have possible without this.

SJ: Where to now for AutoCAD's interface? Now that you've put this big effort in, are you going to leave it alone for a while?

MS: The ribbon and the overall UI changes are not a checkbox that we have marked complete. There are large plans for the ribbon. We have a lot more functionality to expose and dig deeper on. This will be an evolution of the current ribbon, not a reintroduction of something new. Users should feel very confident in adopting the ribbon and customizing the ribbon. It will be around for long time to come.

As for other areas of the AutoCAD UI, the navigation tools will continue to be improved upon, along with improvements to QuickViews, Tooltips, and everyone's favorite UI component, the command line. I have actually worked with some people who have really great, slick, intuitive ideas for the command line that really break it out of its current mold and maintain its speed and execution.

I can say that the next few years are going to be very exciting for Autodesk products in terms of the user experience.

SJ: In closing, do you have anything else you want to say to AutoCAD users?

MS: We always have our customers in mind with all of the changes we make to the product. We realize the ribbon is a huge departure from the land of menus and toolbars. That is why we spent an inordinate amount of time on the ribbon content and ensuring it has been laid out in an intuitive manner. But it is new and you may have to search for a command the first time you use it, just as you once did with menus and toolbars up until AutoCAD 2008. You may even discover some functionality you forgot was there or did not know existed in the first place. I hear that every now and then from many of our testers.

If you want to help shape the future of AutoCAD and Autodesk products, you should join our beta programs where you can voice your opinions, rants, wishes, and thoughts directly to the people who are shaping the next great AutoCAD. I would welcome hearing readers' opinions, thoughts, success stories, rants, and complaints on the AutoCAD 2009 ribbon. We'd also be interested in seeing how you've customized your ribbon. Feel free to contact me at

SJ: Matt, thank you for your time.

MS: Thanks to Cadalyst for the opportunity to talk about the ribbon from someone deep in its design and development.