As primitive a mechanism as they may seem to be, menus remain the most effective way to elicit information from users. The system offers a list of options, users pick what they want and the system moves on to the next step. Nothing could be more straightforward—yet, if certain basic principles are not observed, menus can easily become very difficult to use.
This is the first in a two part series, in which I’ll cover 12 guidelines to help you design usable menus. For today, here’s the first six.
1. Present the most requested items first.
Not all menu items are created equal. If you know which items are requested most frequently, place those items at the head of the menu list.
2. Keep the menu list to four items or less.
Because users have to try to remember all the options present, try to keep your menus to four items or less. If you need to present the user with more than four items, split the list into two: the first list should present the user with the items they are most likely to request, with the last option granting access to the second list.
3. Keep the menu depth to three or less.
People hate deep menus. They are exasperated by them. And the deeper the menu, the stronger their feeling that they are being led into a blind alley with little hope to get where they want to go. If your menu depth is more than three, go back to the drawing board and see if you can’t consolidate some of those tree branches.
4. Use the construct “You can say….”
If your application is speech enabled, use the construct, “You can say….” to list the menu options.
System: You can say, “Books,” “Magazines” or “Newspapers.”
5. Avoid the construct “For X, say X, for Y, say Y, for Z, say Z.”
Simply rewrite the menu prompt as, “You can say, ‘X,’ ‘Y’ or ‘Z.’” In cases where you can’t find the X, Y or Z wordings that will accurately convey the meaning of the options, then use the construct “To A, say ‘X,’ To B, say ‘Y,’ To C, say ‘Z,’” where “To A” briefly explains what the option means.
System: To get your current balance, say, “Check balance;” to open a new account, say, “Open account;” to transfer funds from one account to another, say, “Transfer funds.”
6. Don’t use “Please select from the following options.”
This is a jaded phrase that needs to be retired. Just get to the point!
These are a good start—but stay tuned for next time when we’ll be coming back with even more best practices.
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