Menus and the Hired Help

Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report: Architectural Digest vs. This Old House (A List Apart No. 184)

This one left me ROTFLMAO:

I look forward to the day when most people who hire folks like us to design, structure, and program their web presences treat us more like the thinkers we are, and less like hired hands installing birdbaths.

Ha! So true, and I can name one other sultry profession as metaphor for the way I often find myself feeling after client meetings…

Jeffrey here notes his distaste for drop-down menus in web pages, and I don’t like them either. Learning a user interface on a familiar piece of software is one thing, where there are predictable (one hopes) menu item locations, user manuals available, and the software is used often. Take Photoshop for example; there are menu items on there that have been there since I first saw the program. There is a certain static state to software programs that remains unchanged that allows such menus to be acceptable practice.

Web sites on the other hand are much more fluid and change often. Things can vary from site to site so wildly that one could never expect a poor new user to discover it all in such a menu-oriented user interface. Menu items are buried and hidden, requiring multiple user actions to find. Packing your menus with tons of items usually means that the site’s hierarchy and navigation structure has failed, we’ve given up, and just plopped everything into these all-encompassing menus. The usability aspects of such menus itself are commonly called into question, especially for those that cannot use a mouse and are tabbing through the links in your site. And besides, the damn things are often a pain to keep track of and edit, when done the old, traditional, JavaScript way. Please, just say no. Won’t somebody please think of the children?!?

In my usability testing experiences, there are always one or two users who get it naturally – they go straight for the menus and hunt feverishly to find what they’re looking for. They are like prodigies – A menu fetishist’s wet dream. Then there are the rest of them. The poor, huddled, unwashed masses that often don’t even see the menus, or don’t initially to go mousing over them on a karmic-zen jouney of discovery until the guide gently suggests “What if you looked in the menus?”. “Oh yes, why thank you!” they apologize, as if it were their fault. (Usability Testing Rule No.1: Always remind the user that it is not their fault – it is the design that sucks.) One lone menu seems to be not too daunting, and indeed I’ve included a single Category menu in this particular weblog’s page navigation to allow the user to sort the entries by topic according to their fancy. With a gaggle of menu-geese, it seems that the number of menus is inversely porportional to the number of dazed and confused users you wind up with.

I think that if you want to use menus, you should consider your user base. Are you going to be getting a large percentage of your traffic as stray first-timers off Google searches? Or are you going to be developing an intranet application behind a firewall and your user base will be active repeat users with formal training. Obviously the latter case justifies menu development, while in the former case menus may not be in your best interest. Menus certainly can look flashy and give the impression of sophistication in a site design, but weigh the pros and cons before you jump in.