Friday, May 25, 2012

Milliseconds count - Some Tips on Designing Menus

A lot of sites these days think that “keeping everything in easy reach” means nesting navigation menus so visitors can get to something deep within the site without clicking on any other pages. As a result,you find a lot of drop-down menus that then trigger a secondary menu that “flies out” from the side.

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Well, let me be blunt: This technique may be useful, but there’s a long road from useful to usable.Try navigating one of these with your finger or a TV controller and you’ll quickly curse the designer. And even with a mouse, it can be tricky to grab the word or phrase on which you want to click. That said, there are a couple of very basic things you can do that will dramatically improve usability.

Make sure that the clickable area is larger than just the words in the link. You really don’t want to make these active areas too small.

Make sure you give people enough time to maneuver the cursor into position. Although I hate to get into technical nitty-gritty, the timing issue is really quite important, so let me share some of the current best practices:

Let the cursor “hover” over a link for about half a second before triggering any menu expansion.

After an animated menu has been triggered, it should display as quickly as possible—in less than 1/10 second if possible.

When the visitor moves the cursor away from the menu, wait half a second before you collapse the menu. This gives people a chance to move the cursor more sloppily as they navigate and cut corners, thus reducing the need to stay strictly within the active areas of the menu

That said, when the menu does collapse, it should do so as quickly as it appeared.

From a functionality point-of-view, make sure to check the timing of these actions on a slow device and not just on your own faster-than-lightning computer. In general, you should also be checking your overall server response times on a dial-up connection and not just on broadband. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t have any access to broadband, particularly in rural areas. And if you are working in an international environment, keep in mind that outside North America, Europe, and a few countries along the Pacific rim, there are many regions that still have no broadband access at all, but merely slow dial-up and mobile connections.

By delaying the collapse of a dropdown/fly-out menu, visitors can move the cursor directly on the diagonal without triggering other menu items or losing the one they wanted to click.


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