Menu Idioms in Java

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Over the years, simple menus have been embellished with new and more complex behavioral idioms. Some have their uses, and others simply get in the way. This section discusses these idioms and their appropriate uses.
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Cascading menus
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One variant of the standard drop-down menu provides a secondary menu when a user selects certain items in the primary menu. This mechanism, called a cascading menu (see Figure 22-4), presents some serious issues for ease of use. Where standard drop-down menus provide clear, easy-to-navigate monocline grouping, cascading menus move us into the complex territory of nesting and hierarchies. They not only make it much more difficult for users to locate items, but they also require well-coordinated mouse movements in two dimensions to navigate them smoothly. (If you trace the path required to select an item in a multilevel cascading menu [such as the Windows Start menu], you will notice that it quite literally takes the form of a path through a maze).
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Part III: Designing Interaction Details
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However, cascading menus are not entirely without worth. They also allow menus to contain much larger command sets, and they provide a hierarchical method of organizing these command sets. As useful as this may sound, please pay close attention to your users before choosing to employ this idiom. It should be clear that cascading menus should only be employed in sophisticated sovereign applications for rarely used functions or as a secondary command vector for something more directly provided in the interface. Also, if you implement cascading menus, be sure to allow for a wide threshold in mouse movement, so the submenu doesn t disappear.
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Figure 22-4 This is an example of a cascading menu from Microsoft Word 2003. Cascading menus make it difficult for users to find and browse the command set, but they do allow menus to usefully contain much larger command sets.
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With Office 2000, Microsoft introduced adaptive menus, which display only those items accessed most frequently by a specific user (see Figure 22-5). This menu idiom was enabled by default in Office 2000 and 2003, but Office 2007 marked a departure from this approach (and menus in general) in favor of the ribbon bar, which we discuss below and in 23. With adaptive menus, Microsoft attempted to make their products seem simpler and easier by hiding those items that a user never accesses. To see the hidden menu items, users are required to click or hover on an icon at the bottom of the menu. When displayed, the previously hidden items are interspersed with the originally shown items.
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22: Menus
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The adaptive menu is well intended, and we certainly applaud the attempt to customize a user interface based upon usage behavior. Unfortunately, the idiom is annoying and severely compromises user effectiveness. Adaptive menus significantly increase the amount of work performed by users as the idiom runs contrary to the two primary roles of a menu system: to teach users about the breadth and depth of application functionality and to provide access to less-frequently used functions.
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Figure 22-5 These images show an expanding menu from PowerPoint 2003. On the left is the menu in its default state, showing a subset of commands based upon usage patterns. The middle image shows the hover state, and on the right is the full menu that is displayed after clicking the expand button.
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It s worth noting that usability studies support this assessment. In a 1989 study, subjects took a significantly longer time to complete tasks with adaptive menus than with static menus, and 81% reported preferring static menus to adaptive menus.1 We would caution readers about interpreting these findings to mean that users will never feel well supported by adaptive interfaces. Rather, we suggest that this particular application of adaptability was directly at odds with the purpose of menus.
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