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Adjusting to the Office 2011 Ribbon

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Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac marks the introduction of a major interface enhancement known as the Ribbon. Unless you're also an Office for Windows user, the Ribbon will be foreign to you. Steve Schwartz, Office guru and author of many Microsoft Office for Mac and Windows Visual QuickStart Guides, spells out what you need to know about the Ribbon: how it works, how to use it, how to hide or remove it, and how to customize it.
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The major focus of the MacBU’s (Macintosh Business Unit) work on Office 2011 was to update it so that it shared more of the look, features, and capabilities of Office 2007 and 2010 for Windows. To that end, Office 2011 marks the introduction of two major changes: the replacement of Entourage (Office’s email client and personal organizer) with Microsoft Outlook, and the addition of the Ribbon interface to all Office applications. This article is about the Ribbon: how it works, how to use it, and how to customize it.

Windows users have had four years to adjust to the Ribbon. But unlike you, they were forced to make the adjustment. When the Ribbon was added, the menus were removed. As an Office 2011 user, you have the best of both worlds. The Ribbon is simply an additional interface element rather than a menu replacement. If you’re a long-time Office user and already know where your favorite commands can be found in the menus, you’re free to ignore the Ribbon—or even remove it. Most likely, though, you’ll use both the menus and the Ribbon—whichever happens to be most convenient for the task at hand.

One of the advantages of the Ribbon over menus is that of feature discoverability. By placing commands, controls, and menus on the Ribbon, you are likely to be exposed to Office capabilities that you previously haven’t used or didn’t know existed. However, there’s also a downside to the Ribbon. As an additional interface, it represents yet one more place where you’ll have to look for the command you currently need. Because there isn’t a perfect overlap between Ribbon, menus, and toolbars and a given command might be in any (or several) of these places, until you thoroughly familiarize yourself with the Ribbon, you’ll probably find that it takes longer to locate certain commands than it did in pre-Ribbon versions of Office.

Ribbon Basics

Think of the Ribbon (see Figure 1) as a series of toolbars, each represented by a tab, such as Home, Tables, or Formulas. Each tab presents controls and commands of a single general type. For example, Word’s Layout tab is devoted to document-formatting commands. To make a tab active and use its controls, you click its name with the mouse. If you later click a different tab, its controls replace those of the first tab.

Figure 1 Only one Ribbon tab can be active (selected) at a time. In this example, Word’s Layout tab is active.

Within a tab, commands are organized into groups, based on similarity of function. For instance, on Excel’s Charts tab, the Insert Sparklines group (see Figure 2) has commands for inserting the three Sparklines types: Line, Column, and Win/Loss. (Although Outlook’s tabs are also divided into groups, the groups are unnamed. Groups in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, on the other hand, are named.)

Figure 2 The Insert Sparklines group (Excel).

In addition to each application’s standard tabs, contextual tabs (see Figure 3) automatically appear on the Ribbon in response to selecting or working on certain types of objects, such as tables, charts, or photos. When you select a different part of the document, the contextual tab(s) disappear.

Figure 3 When a chart is selected on a document page, the Chart Layout and Format contextual tabs appear. (Note that contextual tabs are purple.)

Finally, within each group are icons, menus, galleries, and other controls that represent specific commands or settings. Because most of the control types and options are the same as those found on toolbars and in dialog boxes, the way Ribbon controls work should be readily apparent to you.

  • A downward-pointing triangle to the right of a Ribbon icon denotes a menu.
  • To avoid choosing a command from an icon’s open menu, click anywhere else on the document page.
  • When a contextual tab is displayed, it’s often difficult to quickly tell whether it or another tab is active. If you guess wrong by clicking the tab that’s already active, Office responds by rolling up the Ribbon. To reveal the Ribbon again, click the same tab—or any other tab, for that matter.
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