Dear Intarweb…

Somewhere, back in the mists of UI design, some bright light came up with the idea of making options in an application or desktop environment selectable by using a mouse to point at a menu along the top of a work area, clicking on the menu, and having it present more options.
This was called a ‘Pull down menu’
Handy! Picks were readily available when needed, and stayed out of the way until requested.
I’m fairly sure the original designers of menuing systems never said to themselves, “Hey guys, I think it would be a good idea to SHOW A PULLDOWN MENU JUST BECAUSE YOUR MOUSE HAPPENED TO ROLL ACROSS IT ON ITS WAY TO PAUSE YOUR MUSIC!
I’m flabbergasted that the ‘popup menu’ has become de rigeur in web pages. It’s a terrible UI design, and consistently gets in the way when trying to do other things. There’s no other menuing system on the planet that does this. Menus should show up when you ASK for them, not because you happen to TOUCH it. That’s what the little button the mouse is for. See? Clicky clicky. Now you try it.
Not that I expect this to change anytime in the near future. There’s a revolution going on in UI design now, with AJAX services redefining what it means to write a UI. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any AJAX application that comes near the functionality of existing systems. It appears programmers are going back to 1985 and starting over, thus jettisoning all the lessons learned in the last 20 years.


A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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5 thoughts on “Dear Intarweb…

  1. They’re working on an improvement, I’ve seen it on a couple of sites already. When you rollover a menu not only does it pop up, it does’t go away when your mouse moves on. Just in case you want to refer back to it.

  2. Or those “hover over me to view this flash advertisement with sound” ads. And those never have any way to make them go away, so now you can’t read the page you were trying to visit inthe first place.
    Hooray progress!

  3. The bright light is someone near and dear to me – my dad 🙂 Seriously! I tell this story to people I teach sometimes:
    When my dad (Daniel G. Bobrow, at Xerox PARC) was working there in the 70s, he was part of the original GUI design team for the Alto. They already had the paradigm of “windows”, and one of my dad’s design responsibilities was to present menu information without taking up much screen real estate. So along the top he put the top-level menu items (File, Edit, etc.) and below them were small knobs, or circles. Clicking on the knobs would unroll a “window shade” with more menu items. This was the birth of the pull down menu.
    I was telling this story once, and we started talking about how he came up with the little knobs, as opposed to little strings, or some such. It occurred to me that in my house, at that time, we had little knobs on our window shades. We laughed that if we had had venetian blinds, the whole computing world might have been different!
    I told this story to my dad a few years ago, and we laughed – and then he suggested that venetian blinds might be an interesting GUI – with the ability to see what was behind them, etc. And he challenged me to “whip it up” if I felt like it.
    I declined 😉
    Anyway – there’s your little computer history lesson 😉
    And I totally agree with you – bah on auto-dropping menus! Daddy was right!

  4. My daughter has embellished the story over time. I was programming in Lisp on a successor to the Alto (the D-machine) when I came up with the idea for a “window-shade” interface to a menu with too many items to leave up all the time. I later saw a similar idea called a “pull-down menu” (independently invented as far as I know). The latter is a better name and we later used that name in the Interlisp system. But the story has served my daughter well, and it is still a good interface idea.

  5. Well … I stand corrected 😉 Shoot … I didn’t THINK it was an embellished story. I know we had the conversation about the windowshades, though!
    He’s still a great dad though – and auto-dropping menus suck!

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