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About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design by David Cronin, Robert Reimann, Alan Cooper

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Chapter 22. Menus

Menus are perhaps the oldest idioms in the GUI pantheon — revered and surrounded by superstition and lore. Most designers, programmers, and users accept without question that traditional menu design is correct — there are so many existing programs that attest to its excellence. But this belief is like snapping your fingers to keep the tigers away. There aren’t any tigers here, you say? See, it works! That said, a well-designed menu can be a very useful way to provide access to application functionality in certain contexts. We start this chapter with a brief history of menus and then discuss some problems with menus and how to use them appropriately.

A Bit of History

While the modern GUI with its drop-down menus and dialog boxes has only been mainstream since the Macintosh’s introduction in 1984, it is now so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take for granted. Before diving into the details of contemporary menu idioms, it’s useful to look back and examine the path we’ve taken in the development of modern interaction idioms as a basis for our understanding of menus’ strengths and potential pitfalls.

The command-line interface

If you wanted to talk to an IBM mainframe computer in the 1970s, you had to manually keypunch a deck of computer cards, use an obscure language called JCL (Job Control Language), and submit this deck of cards to the system through a noisy, mechanical card reader. Each line of JCL or program had to be punched on a separate card. Even the first microcomputers, ...

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