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Menus: Consistency
Are the menus consistent?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

How do menus behave? Are the name's of menus similar across Applications? Are the behaviors similar? Remember, consistency is the same as predictability -- if people only have to learn things once, then they are comfortable and working with the familiar -- if a menu acts "different", then the user will feel alienated, confused, and make errors.

Mac - The Mac started the standardization of menus -- as such, it's menus are pretty consistent. Apple, File, Edit, Help, and the Application Menu are always standard elements. Unfortunately, over the last decade people have evolved away from "standards", and there are some Apps that break rules (like putting "new" somewhere other than under the file menu). These Apps are at fault, but it harms the interface overall. Apple has done little to extend the UI rules as times (features) changed, which gives room for programmers to "interpret" things their own way (and different from each other). The Mac has evolved away from a 5 to where it is now -- SCORE: 4

NeXT - NeXT had some standardization, but it also sacrificed some consistency for power. They allowed some menu items (like quit or print) to be a first level element, while most of the time the first level is for pulling down a sub-menu). This makes it faster to use, but sacrifices a little predictability for power and versatility. NeXT's greater focus on vertical markets also left more "laxness" when it came to UI. In addition, some older Apps don't adhere to standards established later, including some of NeXT's own Apps (like PB or IB). SCORE: 3.5

Windows menus has a few standard items (File, Edit, Window) -- but there so many programmers that it makes it hard to get everyone to follow standards. That alone would put Windows lower on the scale (even if Microsoft was as good as Apple at defining standards -- which they aren't), but then Microsoft makes exceptions to their own rules in their own applications, which makes matters worse (and convinces others that interface is not that important). The standards are loose and not that well defined, and Windows programmers or project managers (as a gross over-generalization) don't seem to understand UI (or care to spend the time on it) -- and so it is much harder to figure out where something is likely to be in any App (little consistency). Plus you have lots of exception like; having menus for most Apps -- except for the File-Explorer (which has no menus of it's own -- but instead ties them to each Window), or when you click on a menu you can select other menus by moving back and forth (except the Window control menu, where that doesn't work), some menu items (like Close) are in more than one place (both in the file menu, and in the window control menu), and lots of other exceptions. App to App consistency is worse than Apple as well. SCORE: 2

BeOS - has it easy, in that there aren't yet many Apps. This would tend to mean that it would be easier to force consistency (fewer cooks in kitchen so to speak). But Be hasn't done a good job of creating interface guidelines -- and many of the sample apps live by their own rules. Be is focusing on "power", and a tool for programmers, and so they aren't saddling the programmers with things like "interface guidelines" -- unfortunately that is likely to make it a programmers OS (like Unix), and not necessarily a users OS. BeOS PR-1 stank because of a global/local menu split, that was confusing and inconsistent -- but they are better with PR-2. I am concerned because BeOS is likely to evolve into an interface nightmare -- but it is not too bad yet. SCORE: 2.5

Others - they vary. Overall, they do a really bad job on consistency because they don't care. I haven't used it, but I've seen screen-shots, and heard from the users of the Acorn, that it may be an exception. However, the other Unix interfaces are usually just awful to use, as far as consistency -- each App is it's own world, and every geek programmer seems to think that he knows better than anyone else, and so does it his "own" way. The Apps that work best are the ones that adopt the standards of another platform (like the Mac). SCORE: 1

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Created: 12/21/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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