22: Menus in Java

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22: Menus
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Many applications also use the status bar that goes across the bottom of their main window to display an even longer line of explanatory text associated with the currently selected menu item. This idiom can enhance the teaching value of the command vector if a user knows to look for it. The location ensures that such information will often go unnoticed. To provide a good pedagogic vector, menus must be complete and offer a full selection of the actions and facilities available in the application. A scan of the menus should make clear the scope of the program and the depth and breadth of its various facilities. Another teaching purpose is served by providing hints pointing to other command vectors in the menu itself. Repeating button icons next to menu commands and including hints that describe keyboard equivalents teach users about quicker command methods that are available (we discuss this further later in this chapter). By putting this information right in the menu, the user may register it subconsciously. It won t intrude upon his conscious thoughts until he is ready to learn it, and then he will find it readily available and already familiar.
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Almost every GUI these days has at least a File and an Edit menu in (or near) its two leftmost positions and a Help menu to the right (Mac OS X has a menu named after the in-focus application in the furthest left position followed by File and Edit). The Windows, Macintosh, and even the Motif style guides state that these File, Edit, and Help menus are standard. It is tempting to think that this de facto crossplatform standard is a strong indication of the proven correctness of the idiom. Wrong! It is a strong indication of the development community s willingness to blithely accept mediocre design, changing it only when the competition forces us to do better. The File menu s name is the result of implementation model thinking about how our operating systems work, the Edit menu is based on a very weak clipboard, and the Help menu is frequently not terribly helpful and often only contains a single item that is actually directly related to helping users. These menu conventions can trap us into designing weak user interfaces. The menus on most of our programs may be familiar, but are they good ways to organize functions Selections like View, Insert, Format, Tools, and Options sound like tools and functions, not goals. Why not organize the facilities in a more goaldirected way
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Part III: Designing Interaction Details
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Can t you hear the programmers shouting, How can you change something that has become a standard People expect the File menu! The reply is simple: People may get used to pain and suffering, but that is no reason to perpetuate them. Users will adapt just fine if we change the File menu so that it delivers a better, more meaningful model. The key to figuring out a reasonable menu structure goes back to understanding users mental models. How do they think about what they are doing What terms make the most sense to them If your users are computer-savvy, and you re designing a productivity application, it might make sense to stick to recognizable standards, at least at the top level (and then again, it might not). If, however, you re designing a specialized and purposeful application, the structure might very well need to be different. All that said, there is obviously still a place for the standard menu structures. In the many situations where it is not appropriate to restructure an application s menu structure, much good can be done merely by making good choices about how menu standards are applied.
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Most users only think of files when they re forced to understand the implementation model. A much more Goal-Directed term for the menu is Document. If your application deals with one primary document or object type, it s worth considering whether it makes sense to use that for the menu name. For example, in a music sequencer, Song would be a much more user-friendly term than File. We assure you, there s nothing worse to be thinking about when making music than a computer s file system. In 17 we described a better File (or Document) menu. One useful feature we didn t mention there is the Most Recently Used list on Microsoft applications (see Figure 22-3).
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