End of the Line for the Menubar and Toolbar?

Something has gone wrong with the pulldown menubar and toolbar. Once considered synonymous with “user-friendly,” the very “M” in WIMP, their effectiveness has been deteriorating through years of neglect and abuse. As conceived, the menubar and toolbar were an awesome combination: powerful yet unobtrusive, providing fast access to all the commands in an application while keeping themselves neatly out of the way of the thing the user is actually working on. They allowed quick convenient execution for experts while providing guidance and education for novices. Exploring the menubar is how you learned about an application. The toolbar was how you mastered it.

But I think things have changed.

Now it seems users might know a toolbar button here, and menu item there, but they dare not touch anything else. When I’ve asked a user to try to search for a command, I see her click randomly, not following any systematic search that a hierarchical menu is supposed to allow. I know users that when you tell them how to execute a command via the menubar or toolbar, they write it down on slips of paper. Isn’t that precisely the sort of behavior the menubar was supposed to eliminate? If you have to write it down, how is a menu significantly better than command line? Worse yet, many users don’t look at the menus or toolbars at all, disregarding them as irrelevancies or perhaps beyond human comprehension. I asked one user, “What sort of commands do you find under File?” and she didn’t seem to even understand the question.

Is it too late for the menubar and toolbar? Have they outlived their usefulness and is it time to move on? Should we abandon them as Microsoft Office has? Or should they be saved, and if so, how? Can we restore them to their place at the center of WIMP interfaces? Today, I post the first in a series of articles on the menubars and toolbars, what is wrong with them, and what can be done about it, and what alternatives exist. Along the way, I’ll discuss MS Office’s new Ribbon a little bit, but I’ll save a full-scale evaluation until I get a beta of Office 2007 and try it out myself. I will say this about it: the Ribbon was designed and tested to address pretty specific problems. It won’t necessarily address the problems users may be having with your application. Your application might work best with a traditional menubar and toolbar. And if not, then maybe it needs something yet to be created.

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