Slinky menus for increased usability – clever or tried+failed?

How many times have you started up a new application and been overwhelmed by the sheer number of little buttons and menu options you can pick from? I’m thinking OpenOffice or the GIMP here. If you’re a n00b it’s pretty daunting. Heck, even for an expert it’s cluttered and annoying.

I’ve seen attempts to present different levels of interface to different experience levels. Thing is, the nomenclature can’t help but be condescending. With levels like “Basic, Intermediate, Advanced” who isn’t going to feel like a wuss for staying with “Basic”? Anyway, the whole interface changes, which may not be helpful for finding the specific thing you want to do.

So here’s an idea that I’ve not seen implemented (someone please let me know if this has been tried and how it worked out). Rank each option by how common its use is (the developers could guess, use focus groups, or collect usage data from existing versions). Start with menus/toolbars displaying just the most common options. Then add the ability for each menu and toolbar to be expanded or contracted by grabbing the end and pulling it. This could work for sub-menus too. The bigger the menu or toolbar, the more esoteric the options that appear on it; and they don’t have to appear at the end, they could appear sensibly grouped with other related options.

Several benefits fall out:

  • If there’s a menu or sub-menu you use a lot, you can expand just that to your taste and leave everything else comfortably uncluttered.
  • The designer could put the same option on several menus (often it’s not obvious that something belongs on only one) without worrying too much about contributing to clutter.
  • Don’t need to add yet another button or menu item or preference to control how much interface to show – it’s totally intuitive right where it’s needed.

The only reason I can think of for not doing this is that someone’s probably already patented it and put it on the shelf. What do you think?

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2 Responses

  1. Not far fetched. I swear that I’ve seen something similar, but with a clickable tag on the bottom of the menu instead of a dragable edge. Probably Office 2003. Yes: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/customizing-the-menu-bar-in-office-2003.html
    Well, it isn’t precisely the same solution but I’d say it is in the same region of the solution space.

  2. Yeah, someone else is thinking about it – not surprising – but I wonder if anyone’s thought of doing exactly this. Since it would require menus to be non-static I imagine it’d take a fair amount of work to try it out. Menus probably hook into a lot of other stuff in non-obvious ways.

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