Comparison: Is the Windows ribbon interface more efficient than the old-school menus?

When we talked with others about the new versions of Windows, we unwillingly started a debate about the ribbon and its efficiency. Some people do not like the fact that Windows 10 and Windows 8.1 use it more widely than Windows 7, and there are still people who complain that it is way less efficient compared to the older interface from Windows XP. In order to put an end to this debate using facts instead of subjective opinions, we decided to create a benchmark of sorts. A series of measurements that can be used to compare the efficiency of the ribbon interface, as it is used in Windows 10 vs. Windows 8.1 vs. Windows 7 vs. the interface from the old Windows XP. Here are the results:

The testing procedure

We created four virtual machines: one with Windows 10, one with Windows 8.1, one with Windows 7, and one with Windows XP Service Pack 3. All the operating systems had all the latest updates installed. We tested three applications that are present in all these operating systems, and which all use the ribbon: WordPad, Paint and Windows/File Explorer.

Then, we enabled all the toolbars and buttons that can be found in these applications. For example, we enabled all the buttons in the Quick Access Toolbar found in the apps from Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7. In Windows XP, we enabled all the toolbars in Windows Explorer. All these buttons and toolbars were enabled using the default menus and settings. We did NOT run any registry hacks or third party tools to enable additional features.

Then, we wrote down what we think are the most common tasks you are likely to execute in these three applications (WordPad, Paint and File Explorer), in Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7 and Windows XP. We measured the number of steps required to complete these tasks and compared the results. Any task that could not be executed in all the operating systems, was excluded from measurements. For example, in Windows XP, you cannot insert a URL website address as a link to a text selection in WordPad, and Redo does not exist as a feature in Windows Explorer.

We wanted to make a click-based comparison so we did not use any keyboard shortcuts to speed up any of the tasks. Everything was done using the mouse, the menus, and buttons available in each application. The keyboard was not used unless it was required to make a mandatory text entry to complete a task (e.g. renaming a file or folder).

The ribbon user interface in WordPad - Up to 21% more efficient

The first application we analyzed was WordPad - the default document editor included in all Windows versions and editions.

Windows, ribbon

We analyzed a series of 12 common tasks people execute when working with a document in WordPad. Although the results were surprisingly similar for most tasks performed in Windows 10, Windows 8.1 or Windows 7, things changed significantly compared to Windows XP. “Copy & paste special”, inserting pictures, and saving documents are all tasks you’ll do a lot faster if you use modern Windows operating systems.

Windows, ribbon

All in all, we believe it is fair to say that the ribbon in Windows 10 brings an efficiency improvement of up to 21% when compared to Windows XP, but it’s only 3% faster than the ribbon interface in Windows 8.1. The following chart should offer you a clearer picture.

Windows, ribbon

The ribbon user interface in Paint - Up to 42% more efficient

Let’s go to Paint - the tool which is very likely to be the world’s most basic yet most used graphic painting program. We tested a set of 16 tasks in this application.

Windows, ribbon

Here, the improvements that the ribbon user interface brought in Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 are obvious when compared to the old Windows XP.

Surprisingly, it also looks like nothing has changed since Windows 7, as the results we got in the measurements were exactly the same in the more recent versions of Windows. But, hopefully, the user interface from Paint will become even more efficient in the soon to come Windows 10 Creators Update.

Windows, ribbon

In Paint, the ribbon interface is up to 42% more efficient in Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, versus the old menus that were used in Windows XP.

Windows, ribbon

The ribbon user interface in Windows/File Explorer - Up to 55% more efficient

Last, but not least, we tested Windows/File Explorer, which is the most used application of all the three we looked at.

Windows, ribbon

We compared a number of 15 tasks which we believe are executed pretty often by people using this tool.

Windows, ribbon

In Windows/File Explorer we noticed the biggest improvement of all tools. The File Explorer in Windows 10 and Windows 8.1 is 43% more efficient than that from Windows XP. Not only does the ribbon give the user quicker access to various options, but it also includes new options and is better organized in each new Windows version. However, we found no improvements in the File Explorer from Windows 10, compared to the File Explorer in Windows 8.1.

Windows, ribbon

Conclusion

Personally, we did not expect to see big improvements in usability between the different versions of the ribbon interface. But, we believe that the results speak for themselves. The ribbon in Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 does give faster access to the actions and controls available in each application we tested, compared to the user interface you’ll find in Windows 7. On the other hand, people who use the old style interface often customize the menus so that all common activities are available with one click. The ribbon forces you to click from tab to tab to get to what you want. Comparing the ribbons themselves, if we take a look at the latest versions of Windows, it doesn’t seem like the efficiency of the ribbon interface has changed much in Windows 10 since Windows 8.1. Yet things could improve further in the next Windows 10 Creators Update.