Web Site Drop Down Menus

Dallasnews MenuWhile we’re seeing more drop down menus on web sites, designers don’t always do what’s best for the users. How many times has a drop down menu unexpectedly popped up and you try to make a selection only to have it disappear? It doesn’t matter if a person has arthritis or other hand mobility issues, even folks with steady hands don’t always make it before the menu disappears. This disappearing menu problem also shows up in Windows.
So I’ve advised people not to use drop down menus. After all, users make a decision only to see another menu and have to make another decision. However, I don’t feel that way anymore as drop down menus become a standard and do work when done right.
A new trend has appeared with regard to drop down menus. Rather than disappearing, they stay until you close the window or click outside of the window. It also helps when a little down arrow appears next to the menu hinting more options will pop up.
Jakob Nielsen believes the X to close the window isn’t needed and that these drop downs should go away on their own when the user selects another item. This again is tricky because of the steady hand issue. But I would think if a user selects another top menu item, it’s by choice. It’s the selecting of a submenu item that proves hard. Like Nielsen says, timing can help here.
Also, some menus expand the sub menu directly below the top menu item instead of off to the side. This works much better since the users just have to go straight down instead of carefully navigate to the side. The image above shows an example of this from the Dallasnews.com web site. JMR MenuThis menu leaves little room for error since the submenu starts at the left of its top menu and goes a little wider. Many submenus tend to start at Sports (shifted).
While the Blue JMR menu goes off the side, it has a timing mechanism so the user has time to select or pick another top menu item. This method works.
Even with this changing navigation menu practice, it’s still helpful to accept the user’s clicking of the top menu item. Of course, this depends on the site’s navigation design and content.
In sum: Drop down menus work well — as long as the design handles them right.
Navigation testing has one advantage. You can ask friends, family and colleagues to check out the menu’s functionality for you even if they’re not the dream user. These folks, however, aren’t the ones to ask about findability. For that, you need to go to your target audience.
What menu styles do you not like? Why?

4 thoughts on “Web Site Drop Down Menus”

  1. Hi Meryl. I don’t have too much of a problem with drop-down menus, but have noticed them disappearing quicker than I can get to them sometimes. My issue is finding the menus on some websites. Sometimes just logging in and logging out is a hassle because I have to try to find the spot first. It’s like trying to find Waldo 🙂

  2. Interesting article. I think that drop-downs these days work quite well and aren’t an issue any longer. And I agree with Nielsen, a small X bar or clicking on another location is too much. In fact, it would annoy me if I found a site with that.
    My biggest peeve? Different site layouts in the same website. It drives me nuts when a site changes their layout drastically from section to section, without keeping even the main menus similar.
    Tao – Starlit Citadel´s last blog post… April Newsletter

  3. @Davina, I think the lesson here is to make sure the web site uses them right and doesn’t make it harder than necessary.
    @Tao, oh you’re not kidding. Designs like that make it a slow experience as you have to re-orient yourself with every page. Agree — people, don’t do that!

  4. All of those issues can easily be avoided with mindful design/usability practices. The problems arise when web designers use the menus as a crutch to try to get around their inability to properly design the information architecture and foresee usability issues. Unfortunately their clients don’t notice them until after the site is complete, if at all.
    Harrisburg Web Design´s last blog post… Choosing the Right Domain Name for Your Website


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