Usability of Menus

Menus are part of the standard interface for most programs and most
Operating Systems. On Windows, you’ll find the menus for each
application at the top of the window. To open the Options window, you’d
click on Tools and then move your mouse to Options. If you haven’t had
much experience using a mouse or you can’t keep a steady hand, menus
can cause some usability problems. You could move the cursor a little
too much to the right and activate the Help menu.

A few months
ago as part of my work experience, I was supervising a class of Year 3
students and working with them on a publication project using Microsoft
Publisher and Internet Explorer. It was quite interesting to see how
they used technology – how some of them actually typed in wwwdot
instead of www., how hard it was to spell Google, using laptop
trackpads and typing website addresses into the Google search box
rather than the address bar. However, probably the most annoying thing
for them was using menus. I lost count of how many times they tried to
click on the Edit menu which then disappeared and was replaced by
another menu as they tried to move the mouse to click Paste.

The official Star Trek site
is a terrible example of these bodged up menus. Move your mouse over
“Series and Movies” and then to Deep Space 9. Every single time I
manage to activate the Library menu and need to try again. If you
don’t, the chances are you’ve probably thought twice and been careful
to take a extra large detour around the Library menu. The human hand naturally moves in an arc shape – not in straight lines.

I’ve used
some programs on Linux which require you to click on the next menu if
you want to see another menu item. Perhaps this would be a way of
getting around this problem. The latest version of Office also replaces
menus with “ribbons”. These provide quick and easy access to things
which would have previously been available on the menus. The fantastic
thing about this is they are easy to target and the buttons stay there
at the top of the screen. If I had my way, the Vista UI guidelines
would be updated with a recommendation for application developers to
replace menus with easy to use and simple ribbons.

The Start Menu is another example. The Mezzo Desktop Environment
for Linux replaces the concept of a popup start menu seen in Windows
with a desktop wide menu which takes up the whole screen. The thing is,
if you click on the Start menu, you don’t care what’s on the rest of
the screen – all you care about is being able to access your programs
quickly and efficently. Desktop wide menus make it much easier to
target the required program and provide a lot of extra space. You don’t
get some of the usability problems associated with a Windows-style
Start Menu either.

From the Mezzo Laws of Interface Design:

2. Nested
menus are evil.
A good user interface will eliminate
nested menus since humans have a hard time targeting menus
in the first place, let alone panning up, then scrubbing
to the right or left in a 20 pixel wide corridor.

Desktop-wide menus. Mezzo banishes the
nested “Start Menu” and “Apple Menu” concepts in favor of the expansive desktop-wide menus launched
by single-clicking the Corner Targets. These menus eliminate
the pan-and-scan method of finding the proper information
in a menu, and cut down on the user accidentally missing
the nested menu, and having to go back and re-drop the menu
to try again.

3 thoughts on “Usability of Menus

  1. Menus are basicly maps.

    As on every map the straight way between to points might be an impossible route to travel.
    The difficult part is to learn how to read a map, and too use this
    information and be able to navigate through the landscape or the wide
    world web.

    In the process of doing this you will learn how to
    categorise the different landscape (or menus) since this shorten the
    time taken to find the information needed. This is what a nested menu
    are, a shortcut and a filter which helps me (hopfully you too) to
    choose the right path faster.

    If you take a look on the pictures
    (which is a map of someplace in Norway), I have drawn two dark red
    dots. If you have never seen a map before or at least not one this
    detailed, you might believe that the fastest and best way to travel
    between this dots (on foot) is a straight line between them (the blue
    line). To be honest this is almost impossible, the best and probably
    fastest path is the one I have drawn with a red line on the the second

    Find fastest path (1:15000)


    if the straight line might look like the fastest and best solution, it
    might be the hardest and longest. With experience and knowledge you
    gain the power to handle this situations fast and simple, as with Since I have experienced this menus before, I
    automaticly knew the solution, the moment I saw that the sub menu
    disaperead when hovering LIBRARY, I just stopped hovering it.

    started this comment by saying menus are maps. This is offcourse very
    wrong, but still true (a small contradiction, but you get the point).

    There are some crucial differences:

    • Maps have a standard.
    • If you read a map wrong, the consequences are usual higher than with a menu.
    • You must learn how to use a map (unless your name is newton and everybody thinks you have been dead for some years).
    • The distances are a little bigger.

    With this in mind I do not believe we should standarise menus.
    Mainly because it is almost impossible, different menus have different
    needs and you do not need an government approved education to make them.

    Secondly because it would be boring, what is the fun in seeing the same thing time after time.

  2. I’m not saying menus are too complex but that it’s too easy to
    activate the wrong menu. Offices’s ribbons are a new and different way
    of exposing features through the user interface without long and
    complex menus. I believe that standardizing ribbons through Vista would
    improve usability.

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