Reflecting on the ribbon

by Daniel Spreadbury on March 16, 2012 · 15 comments

in Opinion

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…or how I learned to stop worrying, and love the ribbon.

Over the years we’ve made some pretty controversial changes to Sibelius. Who remembers when the Enter key on the numeric keypad stopped editing the selected note and instead added a tie? Or when the Space bar was changed to start and stop playback, instead of inputting a rest? Or when the Sounds window was replaced by the first version of the Mixer? Or when the behaviour of the R key was changed to correctly repeat the duration of the selected note in all circumstances, rather than arbitrarily stopping at the barline?

But by far the most controversial change we’ve ever made has been to adopt the ribbon UI in Sibelius 7. Many people have taken to it very happily, but lots of people are resistant. I was recently asked by a poster on the main Sibelius forum about what the rationale was for making such a fundamental change, so I thought I’d record my response for posterity. Read it after the jump.

Long-time users of Sibelius naturally forget what it was like when they first started using the program, especially those who started using the Acorn version the best part of 20 years ago! Slightly less long-time users might cast their mind back to the days of Sibelius 1.4 and remember how simple the program seemed. Over the years since then, we’ve added things to the program incrementally, building on the excellent foundations that Ben and Jonathan Finn designed. Sibelius 3 didn’t seem so different to Sibelius 2, and Sibelius 4 didn’t seem so different to Sibelius 3, and so on: existing users could deal with the incremental change between versions because they already had a good mental model of how the software worked prior to that.

But imagine a new user coming to Sibelius 6, say, for the first time. Sure, in principle, it doesn’t look so different. But take a look at the toolbar. Are those buttons on the toolbar the operations you really use most commonly as you use the software? Could you learn how to input notes, or create text and other markings, or play back the score, from that toolbar? Put yourself in the shoes of somebody who has never seen Sibelius before, and think about changing the staff size, or adding or deleting a bar. How do you do that? How do you add an instrument to the score?

And those are just examples of the very simplest, most basic features of the software. What about the really nifty stuff, like exploding music onto multiple staves, or automatically cleaning up Flexi-time input or MIDI import, or adjusting the note spacing…?

The point I’m making with all of the above is that Sibelius has become a very sophisticated program with many hundreds of features, and long-time users cannot easily comprehend what it’s like to see it for the first time, let alone try to figure out how to use it.

Sibelius 1.4 (c. 2000) running on Windows 7 (yes, it still works fine!)

Don’t get me wrong: the original design that Ben and Jonathan laid out was great, and as the product’s principal designer in the years since, I have done my best to continue along those same lines over the past several versions. I don’t think Sibelius at its most complex has ever been a fraction as hard to learn as a program like Finale, which even more obviously betrays its late 1980s roots than Sibelius betrayed its late 1990s roots.

The fundamental challenge, then: how to make the deep feature set of Sibelius more accessible to new users, so that exploration of the program is encouraged. How to make all of the common operations as easily accessible as possible, and put in signposts to the less common or more complex ones. How to provide a modern user experience that is similar to the idioms used in other software, so that things people use every day in other software (e.g. tabs in their web browser, the ribbon in their Office productivity software, etc.) are used in Sibelius, so that it feels comfortable to use alongside other modern software.

And, on the other hand, how to do this in such a way that we would not drive every existing user of the software crazy. We knew we had to try to keep terminology the same, retain every possible keyboard shortcut, retain the contextual menus that appear when you right-click, and ensure that the core operations of creating scores, inputting notes, playing them back, etc. were all exactly the same as in previous versions.

There has been lots of research done into software usability, and the ribbon is the result of perhaps the largest such research project ever undertaken. If you have 90 minutes to spare and want to really get the inside story on how the ribbon was developed, and the literally millions of data points that went into its design principles, you should watch this video.

The ribbon solves many of the problems we wanted to solve, and it does so very elegantly. It provides an icon, a text label, a detailed description and a memorable keyboard command for every single feature. It provides a means to make important features more prominent than less important ones, to group related features together, to have a richer set of controls than a normal toolbar so that more tasks can be accomplished directly in the ribbon without the need for opening a modal dialog. It scales well across displays of different sizes, and means that the same feature will always appear in the same place, even if you use a completely different screen size to me.

We looked at a number of different UI approaches, and the ribbon was the option that made the most sense, given the scope of the feature set in Sibelius, its document-centric nature, and so on. The ribbon is not a free-for-all, however: in order to implement it in your application, you have to agree to certain licensing terms from Microsoft, which includes a set of UI guidelines for ribbon applications that have to be followed. These guidelines stipulate aspects of the user experience in great detail, and also include rules about things like whether or not your application can include a menu bar (it can’t). We happily follow along with Microsoft’s rules because almost all of them make sense in the context of the UI principles of the ribbon.

Although we had to lose the menus, we were able to retain all of the existing keyboard shortcuts. Power users who had been using Sibelius for years can fly through their work in Sibelius 7 just as they did in previous versions: they can even minimize the ribbon if they don’t want to look at it. There doesn’t have to be a huge impact on the way you work just because Sibelius has a ribbon and not a toolbar.

One particular cry of anguish has been that of Mac users who feels the ribbon is too Windows-centric. Certainly it is used in very few Mac applications, the only other example at the moment that I am aware of being the latest version of Office for Mac. However, the implementation of the ribbon in Office for Mac represents a substantial compromise, missing out on many of the most powerful aspects of the Windows ribbon UI, including real time-savers like key tips, and leaving in both a full toolbar and a menu bar, thus providing three competing interfaces within one product. The primary complaint is the loss of the main menu bar, which we decided to strip down in order to prevent there being massive duplication of functionality between the ribbon and the menus, and because the way we chose to organise the ribbon did not in any case map exactly onto how the menus had previously been organised: over time, these would only diverge more and more. The problems that the ribbon sets out to solve are not specific to Windows: they are specific to complex document-centric applications. There’s no reason why the ribbon approach should not work on Mac.

And the ribbon provides a number of real, ergonomic improvements, regardless of whether you’re a Windows or Mac user: the way the galleries on the Notations tab provide quick access to the markings you’ve used in the current score; the way you can perform operations that previously required visits to dialogs, such as changing the staff size, page size, margins, etc. directly from the ribbon; the fact that all of the options related to a feature area are grouped closely together (e.g. the Text > Chord Symbols group); and to ensure that important, commonly-used features (like the menus for changing text style, font and point size, for example) are put front and centre in the ribbon, and not buried away in obscure places like the Text panel of the Properties window, where people have always struggled to find them.

The Lines gallery on the Notations tab in Sibelius 7: quicker and easier

Finally, consider the alternative, i.e. what if had we done nothing? Sibelius would have become increasingly ossified, held captive by the habits of its long-standing users, and impenetrable to new users. Imagine a Sibelius version 10 with another 40 or 50 menu items, and another half a dozen icons along the toolbar. Try to imagine what the other software on your computer will look like in five years’ time.

Sibelius 7 is our statement of intent. We will not be bound to the past, as that will prevent us from delivering the best products in the future. We want to bring all of our existing customers with us, and we worked hard to minimise the disruption that a radical overhaul of the user interface would bring. We quickly decided not to leave the old interface in as an option, and as we rewrote the UI parts of Sibelius 7 using the new application framework that allowed us to also provide niceties like resizable dialogs, improved keyboard and mouse access, richer standard controls, dockable panels, tabs, etc., we ripped out those old things as quickly as we could. Leaving in the old interface would cause us additional overhead and maintenance headaches, but more importantly it would be bad for the product, a ball and chain holding it back in the past.

We’ve been bold, but we’ve done it all with the best interests of our present and future customers at heart. We are glad that many thousands of you have already decided to come along. Now that we have the foundations in place, we are focused on building more features that will delight you, just as we have done in the past. Stay tuned!

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Völker March 16, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Did MS’s Licensing terms include “Make sure ist doesn’t play nicely with Apple’s standard mouse?”

Daniel Spreadbury March 16, 2012 at 2:40 PM

It would be amusing if it did, Joe, but no, of course it doesn’t. Is the issue you’re having that the scrolling on the Mighty Mouse and/or the Magic Trackpad is a bit too sensitive along e.g. the tab bar?

Justin March 16, 2012 at 3:10 PM

I’m just shocked that anyone would complain about this. The ribbon has made my score entry so much faster and less frustrating than it was in 5 (the last version I owned a copy of before 7) AND I now use features I never gave a second thought to back in those days.

Doug LeBow March 16, 2012 at 4:25 PM

Superb article Daniel. Thank you for all that you do to keep Sibelius to vital and forward thinking. When MOTU decided to stop making Composers Mosaic a decade ago, I experienced what happens when a software application that you make your daily living with, hits the end of the road and you have to completely start over. Knowing Sibelius 7 is your “statement of intent”, as you so eloquently put it, gives me tremendous peace of mind for the future.

“Find in Ribbon” alone is a such a brilliant bit of connectivity for new and experienced users alike, that I can’t imagine working in Sibelius without the Ribbon ever gain!

Ian Partridge March 16, 2012 at 4:50 PM

I’m on “Day 2″ with the ribbon, after moving from Sibelius 6.

No complaints so far – I feel I have a clearer grasp of the boundaries of the program – sort of “what it’s capable of” if you understand what I mean. I never felt like I knew whether I had full mastery of Sibelius 6 – there was this subconscious feeling that there could be features out there in the UI that I’d never found.

Plus, the Sibelius 7 startup music is the best! (What on earth are you going to play when Sibelius 8 starts?)

Jon Senge March 16, 2012 at 7:36 PM

Very well presented, Daniel. I’ve been a hold-out/skeptic of the overall choice of the ribbon, as I’m sure you know, but your notes here are pretty convincing. I appreciate a company that’ll reinvent itself in order to push the industry forward. Too much hangs in the past preventing real innovation. It’s clear that the advances Sibelius has implemented in the last several versions have forced the competition to implement/copy at a faster clip than they were before, and that’s good for everyone. You’ve convinced me to change my attitude about the ribbon, embrace it, and discover all that it can help me with. I look forward to my eventual upgrade to version 7. Cheers!

Peter Roos March 16, 2012 at 7:41 PM

I am not wild about the design of the ribbon (prefer the somewhat cleaner look and feel of Sibelius 6) but it is certainly easy enough to find your way around Sibelius 7 after a relatively short learning curve. The find in ribbon feature is super helpful.

Phil Shaw March 16, 2012 at 10:06 PM

Given any complex software product with a zillion features, you’re going to have two problems when you want to do “X” (and you simply KNOW that the product can do “X”):

(1) what does the product call “X” (e.g. I had never heard the term “ossia”,
I just called it “the little staff above the regular staff), and

(2) under what sub-sub button is “X” filed.

I’m sure there’s no silver bullet for either of these challenges, and for me as a 7 year user, between the old way and the ribbon is pretty much mox nix.
But, I didn’t find it difficult to adjust to the ribbon, and I applaud the retention of the keyboard shortcuts. With the user-defined shortcuts, I can pretty much ignore the ribbon or whatever, and do my job with shortcuts.

Bravo to Sibelius for continuing to improve and freshen-up the product. Many products just coast in their middle age (as do people).

Steve W March 17, 2012 at 3:45 PM

I started with Sibelius 4 and upgraded to 5, 6, and now 7 (a month ago). I must say, each new version adds interesting new features and makes life easier! I’m not a power user, probably only use Sibelius around 4-6 hours a month, so am continually discovering new features and shortcuts that I missed. I thought I might have trouble adjusting to the ribbon and new features in 7 so bought the printed manual but between online help and the “find in ribbon” feature have only opened it a couple times. The only thing I find I don’t like as much in this version is the start-up music; I liked the clip in 5 the most. Which reminds me, does Sibelius have a list of what music was used in each version? Nice job on 7!

Justin March 17, 2012 at 9:01 PM

Steve,

I think they’ve always been Sibelius symphonies. The question is what happens when they reach version 8, since there were only 7 symphonies…

Bruce March 18, 2012 at 3:08 PM

Excellent article. Clear statement of intent. The reasons and conclusion are all correct. I decided not to buy another music software application based on the un-usability of its interface. In fact, I’ve made that decision several times. Keep up the good work.

Jim Cullen March 20, 2012 at 4:20 PM

Wow. I can really feel the emotion in this article. It seems that you’re rather frustrated at all the hate over the implementation of the ribbon.

I tried Sibelius 7, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the ribbon. Unlike many people, I LOVED the ribbon when it came out on Microsoft Office, but I couldn’t in my short demo learn to like the ribbon in Sibelius. I’m sure given more time I probably could, though. Were I to upgrade, I would certainly be willing to put up with the ribbon until I can learn it, because I pride myself on being open to change. The reason I haven’t upgraded already is not anything the fault of Sibelius, it’s simply that my computer could not handle those sounds. It would go to a complete halt.

Still, I say well done to sticking to your guns on something that you firmly believe is in the users’ best interest, and even more well done for stating this so clearly and being so up front about it.

P.S., I’m also wondering what the startup music for Sibelius 8 will be. We’ve run out of symphonies!
I’d also really like it if there were a place we can easily find what the extracts used in the past were. (The actual recordings would be awesome, but bar numbers would be cool too.)

Steve Jones March 8, 2014 at 7:08 PM

If you think the Ribbon actually serves any useful function, why don’t you post up a JavaScript script that displays random icons from the Sibelius Ribbon, and then see how many ANYBODY can name, within one second. Even ten seconds. Even ten MINUTES. The icons are a complete and UTTER waste of time, and thus the Ribbon is a complete and utter waste of time. And you’re the person responsible for this stupid decision? Unbelievable…

Steve Jones March 8, 2014 at 7:09 PM

Jim Cullen said “Still, I say well done to sticking to your guns on something that you firmly believe is in the users’ best interest,” – LOL. Yes, as long as HE believes it’s in the users’ best interest, it doesn’t matter what the users actually think.

Unbelievable…

Justin March 9, 2014 at 7:38 PM

Seriously, Steve? This post is two years old and you’re still griping about this?

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