A flying menu attack can wound your navigation
By David Walker (Google profile)
As a kid riding in the back of the family VW, I used to sit and watch my father pull into roadside information bays in small towns, looking for directions to some feature of local interest. You still come across those information bays, but almost no-one uses them these days.
And why have they fallen into disuse? Because the highway navigation system has improved. Road signs have grown bigger and clearer over the years, making the information in the information bays unnecessary. These days the casual tourist looking for the exact location of the Big Lobster or the State Goat Hair Museum will encounter highway warnings several kilometres before the event. Those little breaks are a thing of the past.
Web sites are going through this same evolution - from hidden, stop-and-check navigation to a drive-through model. And about time, too. Breaks in car journeys refresh drivers (and often relieve child-sized bladders, or so I recall). Forced delays in finding Web information, on the other hand, merely give users another reason to click away to some other site. Right now, too many Web travellers have to pull over to the side of the road to find the destination they want. And the Web equivalent of the roadside information bay is the fly-out menu. In all its forms, it is used too often.
Fly-out menus come in three main shapes:
- Pop-up menus fly out from under your cursor wherever it is, often when you click your right mouse button.
- Drop-down menus display one option, while typically a small arrow to the right of the box invites you to click and bring more options into view.
- Cascading menus - also called hierarchical menus - show you a new second or even third menu when you click on the first menu item. The best-known cascading menu lives underneath the Windows Start button.
The worst of these problems afflicts pop-ups, drop-downs and cascading menus alike. All hide most of a site's options from the casual user.
Hiding options in drop-down and cascading menus is a problem even in repeated-use programs like Microsoft Word, whose users were for years shielded from desirable features such as mail merge. The Web magnifies this existing problem. Casual users - the bulk of the average site's audience - simply won't stop to study a site's interface for half an hour. So they ignore features which they might want, and options which the site might need them to explore. Nick Iozzo, a "cognitive designer" at the US Web design house Zefer, pointed out in a posting to the CHI-Web mailing list that most users leave drop-down menus at the default setting. His conclusion: use a drop-down only when you'd be happy for users to accept its default state. Otherwise, try links or radio buttons - anything which puts the navigation out in front of the user.
But aside from hiding options, each type of flying menu suffers from specific problems when used for Web page navigation.
The cursor pop-up (in Windows, the menu called by the right mouse-button) is wonderfully easy to use. After all, it's in the one spot on your screen that you can reach with absolute ease - the spot where your cursor is already sitting. But of course, your Web browser already sets that pop-up menu to useful tasks like letting you open a link in a new window. Using dynamic HTML, you can actually replace that pop-up menu with your own. Thankfully this is an idea too dumb for almost anyone to implement.
The drop-down menu suffers from a usability glitch of its own. If you own one of those wonderful mouses with a scrolling wheel, a twist of the wheel will change your menu choice - often without your knowledge.
But it's the cascading menu which really drives users crazy. For starters, Web-based cascading menus are impressively unpredictable. Some fly out as soon as the mouse passes over them; others appear only when you click. Some stay put when your mouse moves off them; others disappear. Compare, for instance, the Windows Start button, the navigation at msnbc.com and the menus at slate.com. Microsoft was involved in all of them; each behaves differently.
The cascading menu's biggest weakness, though, is its demand that you repeatedly hit a small target - a target which will disappear if you miss it, or even if you take the wrong path to it. You often have to slide your mouse through two precise ninety-degree turns just to reach the second level of a cascading menu. Apple implements the idea better than Microsoft, but the fact remains that cascading menus are inherently tough to use. And most Web designers exacerbate the problem by using their beloved tiny text in those cascading menus. This isn't an interface; it's a computer game.
My own dislike of cascading menus has been refined by years of watching users struggle with them in normal office and home environments. Interestingly, interface design expert Alan Cooper expresses the same view in his classic About Face:
"... Cascading menus move us into the nasty territory of nesting and hierarchies. Hierarchies are so natural to the mathematically inclined, but they are quite unnatural to the rest of us. The temptation to make menus hierarchical is nearly unavoidable for most programmers ...
... There are occasionally enough items on a menu to justify putting some of the more obscure ones onto a second level, but I would consider it an idiom of last resort. I would make sure not to use cascading menus for anything that might be used frequently ...
In Windows .. the poor Start button is so overloaded with hierarchical menus tha even I find it jerky and unresponsive, and I'm a pretty good mouser ..."
When do flying menus work on the Web? On sites such as Jupiter Communications, where the content is strongly hierarchical and the user base is strongly motivated to find the content - they'll usually be paying thousands of dollars for it. On sites where you'd be happy to leave the selected item as the default. And on those rare pages where space truly is at an absolute premium. But in many cases - for instance, where the user must nominate her nationality - they can be replaced by scrolling list boxes that let the user see half a dozen options.
Once you realise the dangers of flying menus, you have to confront the truly difficult issue of Web site navigation. What will your users most want to do at any given time? What should you show them? To answer that, you have to start watching what your traffic is doing, just like the people who put up the road signs. But eventually, you'll be able to send most of your users straight on down the highway - and they'll never have to stop and click around to find out where to go.