Accessibility and the Ribbon

Larry Waldman By Larry Waldman

How the new design for Office will make the accessibility community breathe a sigh of relief.


When I began work on Microsoft Office 2007 many years ago, our team had an ambitious goal to update the User Interface (UI) of all Office programs to make it more predictable and consistent. To that end, all the commands in the new UI are organized into logical groups on a series of tabs called the Ribbon. Introduced in Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Access 2007, and continued in all programs in Office 2010, the Ribbon provides an accessible interface to rich functionality that the Office programs provide. While the Ribbon is the most visible part of the Fluent UI, there are several additional key components of the Fluent UI that will benefit accessibility.

So, what exactly is the Ribbon?

When you start Office 2007 and 2010 for the first time, you'll notice that the Ribbon has replaced the old style menus and toolbars. Think of the Ribbon as a set of "results-oriented" tabs.

Image of the Word 2007 home tab, showing the ribbon at the top of the screen.

Each tab is like a rich toolbar organized around a high-level task and contains commands for accomplishing that task. In Word, the main tabs are "Home," "Insert," "Page Layout," "References," "Mailings," "Review," and "View." When a tab is selected, the commands associated with it become visible in the upper part of the screen. For example, the Home tab contains the frequently-used commands such as bold, italic, underline, alignment, paste, and bullets, while the Insert tab includes commands for adding objects like tables, pictures and charts.

The commands on each tab are ordered into groups to further organize the available features. For example, the Home tab in Word includes groups of commands called "Clipboard," "Font," "Paragraph," "Styles," and "Editing."

You'll find all the traditional file menu commands under the Office Button (the big circle with the logo) in the upper-left corner of Office 2007 applications, or the File tab in Office 2010.

Understanding Ribbon keyboarding

In designing the Ribbon, we took great care to ensure that the keyboard experience would still feel familiar. As such, the common keyboard shortcuts (such as ctrl+p to print) and legacy keyboard "accelerator" sequences (for example, in Word, pressing alt+t, then w for the word count) remain in this new version, providing continuity as you learn to keyboard in the Ribbon. You might be wondering how else the Ribbon is accessibility-friendly. Enter KeyTips, which are assigned to all Ribbon commands. KeyTips provide quick keyboard access to Ribbon tabs and buttons, helping you navigate new Ribbon functionality using common keyboarding strategies.

We’ve consolidated most of the Office 2003 UI into the Ribbon, so once you become comfortable navigating the Ribbon using KeyTips, you will be able to use this one consistent model to access almost all Office features. That will make it easier to learn and navigate the functionality in Office 2007 and 2010.

How to use KeyTips:

  • When you're editing your document and press the ALT key once, the focus moves to the currently selected ribbon tab. A "KeyTip" is also displayed for each tab. KeyTips show one or two letters you can use to quickly jump to a specific tab/button.
  • Screenshot showing keytips on the home and insert tabs of Word.  The Home KeyTip is 'H' and the Insert KeyTip is 'N' You can either use the arrow keys to navigate between tabs, or you can press the KeyTip for the tab you want. Once you've chosen your tab, KeyTips will be shown for each feature on the tab.
  • You can either press the TAB key to cycle through the features on the tab, or you can press the KeyTip to jump to the feature you want.

While this KeyTip/tabbing model should feel familiar, if you've gotten used to specific keyboard accelerators, the "Legacy Keyboarding Mode" will also help ease your transition to the Ribbon. If you begin typing a legacy keyboard combination you've used in Office 2003, it will continue to work in Office 2007 and 2010. So you can still be functional while you familiarize yourself with Ribbon UI commands and KeyTip combinations.

For more detail, please see Jensen Harris' blog entry on Ribbon Keyboarding.

Optimizing the UI for you

In addition to the aspects of the Ribbon I mention above, there are also several new components of the Fluent UI which will help users with disabilities. Here is an overview of some of those features and how they’ll benefit accessibility:

  • Contextual Tabs In addition to the core Ribbon tabs available at the top of the screen, contextual tabs are more targeted to your specific work. For example, when you have a picture selected, the Picture Tools Tab is available, with features such as Crop and Recolor. When you have a table selected, you see the Table Tools Tab, with features such as Table Styles, Borders, and Add/Remove Rows. By only showing UI when you are working with a particular object, contextual tabs make it possible to quickly find features you need without having to sift through those you don't. (And you can quickly access these from their KeyTips, which always begin with the letter J.)
  • Live Preview In Office 2003 and previous versions, if you wanted to find a font that you liked in a Word document, you would have to apply a font to see how it looked, then undo and try a different one, etc… until you found the right one. For keyboard users or users with motor difficulties, this trial-and-error process could be a very laborious (and sometimes physically painful). With a new feature called Live Preview, you can simply hover over or focus on one of the many rich, visual lists (called Galleries) and see a preview of the result. In this way you can very quickly glance through several options and apply the one you want with one click.
  • Enhanced ScreenTips As you navigate the Ribbon, you can get more information about a feature by hovering over it to see a rich description of its function. Another component of the Office Fluent UI, Enhanced ScreenTips provide descriptive information especially useful for people with learning disabilities. This detailed information is also exposed to assistive technology, so it can be read back to people who are blind.
  • Image of the QAT in Word, showing the save, undo, and redo buttons next to the Office Button.  The QAT is available in the upper left corner of the application. Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) Everyone has a set of commands they use most often, so we've made it easy to add commands to the QAT, a small toolbar positioned in the title bar of the application window (next to the Office Button). The QAT provides a location for heavily-used commands that need to be available with one click (regardless of the current Ribbon state). You can add items to the QAT by right-clicking them in the Ribbon and choosing, "Add to Quick Access Toolbar." From then on you can access the command from wherever you are in the application, and avoid situations where you need to repeatedly switch between Ribbon tabs to accomplish repetitive tasks. Commands in the QAT are also accessible from the keyboard by pressing ALT+1, ALT+2, and so on, making it extremely simple for all keyboard users (especially those who are blind) to take advantage of the functionality you use most.
  • Ribbon Minimization While most people find it useful to always have the Ribbon visible at the top of your screen, those of us with learning disabilities prefer to hide as much UI as possible. So, to simplify the visual landscape to better focus on the task at hand, you can collapse the Ribbon. When you press CTRL+F1, the Ribbon will be minimized so it is only visible while you are choosing a command.

I've only scratched the surface as to how people with disabilities can take advantage of Office 2007 and 2010 and their new UI; there are many new features I didn't mention. So check back for future columns on new features, including the Mini-Toolbar, Live Zooming, SmartArt Graphics, and more.

About the author

Larry Waldman is a Program Manager who worked on Microsoft Office and accessibility for the 2007 and 2010 releases. Prior to joining Microsoft he received his B.S. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University. While working on Office he has led research in graphics accessibility, and was the driver for accessibility across the entire line of Microsoft Office products.