Yet another reason why menu bars are evil

Seif Lotfy posted excitedly about Ian Cylkowski’s in-depth Nautilus redesign mockup.

I found it very nice and refreshing, too. However, I noticed one strange thing: the menu bar just up and vanished. Ian`s incentive intrigued me:

Hidden Menubar: I’m not going to take sides here on whether we should still be having a menubar in applications or not; it’s another minefield of opinions and flaming. I’m personally fine with a menubar inside the application, but I also happily use applications that tuck away the menubar under a single icon (think Google Chrome). But I do think that we should have the option here. In my mockup, all the menubar settings can be brought up with the settings icon (first icon after the pathbar). But if you would like to see the menubar permanently then this, too, should be an option.

Being one of those people who considers the slightest growth of an options dialog a crushing defeat, I just have to debate that. Hopefully this won’t cause the flame-war Ian predicts. That would be a bad start for my first aggregated blog post. (Hi, Planet Ubuntu!)

What I would like to do is go over why Chromium’s menus are great, and why they absolutely are not just “tucked away under a single icon” but intentionally designed that way and inseparable from that particular approach. It’s about simplifying the menu so it relates to the two distinct subjects the user interacts with: the application and the current page.

There are millions of things I dislike about menu bars, but that would take all year to discuss. (And I have different things to fix). I’ll just vent about two problems which relate closely to each other:

  • They traditionally consume 100% width. A small menu bar looks wimpy. Half of that menu bar will inevitably be wasted space no matter how hard the developers try to cram stuff into there.
  • There is a strange urge to duplicate everyone else’s menus for consistency and have as many of these as possible. For some reason the uniqueness of an application is expected to vanish at the menu bar, which becomes an abstract world with words like “File” referring to web pages, photos, applications and video clips alike. Menu bars are popular things for accessibility, so I wonder if this abstraction helps in that regard or hinders.

Having said that, GNOME applications deserve some credit for usually replacing the title of the File menu with Music or Photos. Yet, the generic top-left-most menu is still there in spirit.

As we can see from the gnome-terminal screenshot, though, the File menu’s spirit is weak. Challenge of the day: name one file related thing there, then explain why adding and editing profiles should be in different places.

So, Chromium is interesting because it is one of few applications to finally take a bold step against the ’90s fashion in menu bars. First of all, the distinct lack of a menu bar clears up the interface considerably. There are still menus, however, because menus are important to categorize functionality in a pleasant fashion. Then they accept that, to an end user, the browser is not interacting with “files” but with web pages. So, the File menu becomes a Page menu. Completely. They also throw away all the baggage that the File menu used to have.
…and that is where the magic happens. Now the menu has a far more powerful, meaningful context. Actual useful functions can be put there that are of importance to people and relevant to what they are doing. Things like zooming, printing, copying and pasting inside pages.

The remaining stuff happens in the context of the Application menu (the wrench). Quitting, opening windows, changing preferences, dealing with bookmarks; anything that is related to the application as a whole, not the current page. Since Chromium was designed with a logical scope, that is everything else it does (except what extensions add).

I think we can do a lot better than the traditional menu bar. Just yanking it out, though, won’t do us much good.

5 Replies to “Yet another reason why menu bars are evil”

  1. First, Dylan, I'm excited to finally have found your blog.

    Second, that rip-off… erm I mean mock up of Nautilus is shameful. I sincerely hope no one is getting excited at yet-another-low-rent-mock-up-itus.

    Third, is there not a hint in Chromium as well with regards to an innovative way to deal with menus, window decoration? The default empty "Most Viewed" page has a very interesting design decision regarding progressive disclosure. *cough* *cough*

    I'll be keeping tuned…

  2. The File menu has been around a bit longer than just the 90s. It's been around since at least the Apple Lisa in 1983.

  3. ++. Time to get rid of the menubar in most applications. Even Microsoft has realized this.

  4. If it`s hidden it should be hidden in all applications at least in most i don`t like having menu bars in some applications and then not having them in others it just doesn`t look nice :)

  5. I'm unsure about whether we should get rid of menus. The two criticisms that you make of them can be easily fixed. (Here's the relevant bug report for the terminal's file menu, btw: What are your other menu gripes?

    Some advantages of menus:
    * They provide a wide array of actions
    * They nicely advertise the primary objects and operations present in an interface
    * They are good for a11y
    * They communicate keyboard shortcuts

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