The Baroque Labyrinth of Menus and Functions

“Where did I put that file?”

“Wait, which menu is that command under?”

“Where is that tab?”

Such questions—and various permutations thereof—comprise much of my subconscious mental chatter while I’m working at my computer.

Why is it so easy to get lost?

Why the Hullabaloo About Navigation?

Well, for starters, I spend a lot of time interacting with screens and interfaces. After a while you start to get a sense of what it feels like when the UI makes sense and when it feels like something was put there because “that’s just where it’s always lived.” It’s like developing a palette for wine or cheese—certain nuances become apparent through training and experience.

The second reason is that I’ve been working through Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug, and the book got me thinking about how his principles apply more broadly to interface design. His ideas have shaped much of what follows.

Do You See Anything You Like on the Menu?

Most of my work is done in a Graphical User Interface (GUI) of one form or another and the problems that I describe stem from that environment. Some are web-based and some are native apps. Almost all of them have a tremendous number of menus and sub-menus.

Sometimes I get lost even when I’m using applications that are old standbys.

For example, I have consistently used Microsoft Word since high school (15 years ago). It was what our department used when I was writing eLearning courses at the Savannah College of Art and Design. It’s still my preferred word processing application if I need to write something of substantial length.

Even with that amount of time under my belt, my brain sometimes experiences swirling pinwheel of death as I try to recall the particular typesetting features buried under “Paragraph.”

There’s the WordPress dashboard, where some plugins will create a dedicated menu option in the side bar and some will hide their options under the core “Settings” menu or perhaps within their own submenus.

And then there’s Adobe. In general, I love Adobe software. I like the ecosystem and the power of the Creative Suite. But sometimes, I find myself confused at the incongruity between some apps and menus.

Using a software for the first time can feel like walking into a workshop where the owner designed a bunch of toolboxes to be like Russian-nesting dolls.

My point is that just learning where things are located is a core part of becoming proficient in a given software. You might know exactly what you want to accomplish, but if you can’t find the particular menu where that function is buried, you’re going to have a hard time designing, building, or troubleshooting what’s in front of you.

Where’s My Map to Cyberspace?

In her introduction to The New Media Reader, Janet Murray says “…the awe inspiring representational power of the computer derives from its four defining qualities: its procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial properties.”1Janet H. Murray, “Inventing the Mediium,” in The New Media Reader, eds. Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 6.

In my experience, the majority of problems people face when trying to use an interface have to do with that interface’s spatial qualities.

We have a sense that the computer is like an encyclopedia that we can use to retrieve information. We understand that we can interact with the interface and that the computer will respond (i.e., participation). And we generally have a sense that there is some sort of programming defining the limits of participation (i.e., its procedural qualities).

Using a software for the first time can feel like walking into a workshop where the owner designed a bunch of toolboxes to be like Russian-nesting dolls. Menus open up sub menus. Submenus launch modals. Modals may contain yet more submenus and options. It can be dizzying.

And so I find myself asking the same question that I’d ask when I get lost in real life: Where am I?

Transparency and Clear Navigation is a Fundamental Design Decision

To be honest, I don’t mind complex menus. I don’t mind complex interfaces. Complexity and intelligibility are not mutually exclusive. In my line of work, there is often a direct correlation between the complexity of the interface and the productive power of the system.

With respect to website navigation, Steve Krug says “I don’t mind how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.”2Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think, (Hoboken: New Riders, 2014), 43. I think that paradigm applies to application design as well.

The more that I use the tools of my trade, the more I’m struck by the fact that many of my clicks on a daily basis are not mindless or unambiguous. Sometimes they become second nature through habit and repetition, but that is not the same as “mindless and unambiguous.” It’s more like changing your gait because there’s a rock in your shoe. You might forget about the rock, but your walk is still janky.

The friction that I regularly encounter while working on computer system reminds me that transparency and clear navigation are fundamental design decisions. Transparent interfaces don’t bury options necessarily, and they make it clear what exactly is and is not possible in an interface. Clear navigation (which stems from user-centered information architecture), makes it possible to quickly find options when the best solution is to put them in a submenu or even a sub-submenu. It’s a challenge to create an interface with the following characteristics:3For a deep dive into the challenges of interface design, check out Steve Krug’s advice in Chapter 3: Billboard Design 101. This list is a more limited set of his considerations.

  • important options are available from the main screen
  • options located in menus are arranged logically and consistently
  • the main interface is not cluttered with irrelevant items
  • the ability to execute key functions is transparent

There is a fair amount of subjectivity involved in creating such an interface. To be honest, I don’t really have hard and fast guidelines for how such an interface should look, but I think these criteria are important points for consideration. As with many things, it depends on the user, the context, and the content.

Throw the Reader User a Rope

In his introduction to The Elements of Style, E.B. White says:

“[William Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

E.B. White

When it comes to dealing with interfaces, I think it’s good to imagine the user as lost in a maze. For interaction design, Strunk’s sentiment could be recast like this:

“The user is in serious trouble most of the time, lost in the maze that is cyberspace. It is the duty of anyone attempting to design an interface for general users to tear down as many walls as possible in order to make the way out clear, or at least give the user an appropriate map.”

Because if tech-savvy folks get turned around from time to time, what’s going to help everyone else?

  • 1
    Janet H. Murray, “Inventing the Mediium,” in The New Media Reader, eds. Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 6.
  • 2
    Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think, (Hoboken: New Riders, 2014), 43.
  • 3
    For a deep dive into the challenges of interface design, check out Steve Krug’s advice in Chapter 3: Billboard Design 101. This list is a more limited set of his considerations.

Scroll to Top