Why Are We Abandoning Menus?

A while back, Ubuntu’s Mark Shuttleworth posted a blog article called “Introducing the HUD. Say hello to the future of the menu.

Shuttleworth mentions how a menu is “the M in WIMP and has been there, essentially unchanged, for 30 years.” The clear implication, of course, is that the time for a change has come — or is even long overdue. After all, we have to update our interfaces every few years, right?

But what about the other three items in WIMP?

Windows have changed even less than menus. Icons and pointers have changed hardly at all! But aside from Microsoft’s bizarre decision to trash menus entirely in favor of the Ribbon, we now have Ubuntu also heading for this strange new interface pattern. Why the hate-on for menus, so specifically?

A little more recently, Microsoft’s Windows 8 interface has done away with the Start button — again,the entry point for the menu that most users are most familiar with. If you hit the Windows button on your keyboard, it will activate a thing that’s now called the “Start Screen” instead of the “Start Menu”.

Icons are still king. Everyone wants to have an app, even if their site or service works better as a platform-agnostic, HTML5 web site, just so they can have their icon perpetually sitting on your phone’s main screen, reminding you that it exists. Icons ain’t going away any time soon.

And on the Web, if you ask me, we’re using windows too much — even in places where we shouldn’t be. A Lightbox is just a way of trying to have a sub-window in your app or on your site. Sometimes, you need a modal window or dialog like that, but I’ve said many times before that I think a lot of sites and designers overuse the hell out of Lightboxes, just because they can and because “it looks cool”.

So: Why are we abandoning menus? What have they done that’s so heinous?

Shuttleworth talks about some of the design considerations that went into the HUD, and it’s clear that he isn’t just switching away from menus for the hell of it, or as a whim based on fashion. (Indeed, he also points to Microsoft’s Ribbon as a “new alternative to the traditional menu”.)

I remain unconvinced that the traditional menu is really as broken as some other UI designers seem to believe — and I remain completely unconvinced that the Ribbon is any better than menus! (I find it much worse, and I’ve complained about it before.) I haven’t gotten a chance to try the HUD, so I can’t opine on that.

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