Good Questions: Why Not Move Menus to the Side?

On the User Experience Professionals forums, Pablo Diaz asked a great question:

Why are we still putting the menus at the top and leaving users with less space for editing instead of setting those menus at the left?

I have been wondering about this exact topic. With all this widescreen revolution, screens featuring more horizontal real estate than vertical real state. Why are we still putting the menus at the top and leaving users with less space for editing instead of setting those menus at the left? Does this have to do with users used to this specific setting with menus on top or is there really a real scientific logic behind it?

Here’s my response:

Two good reasons come to mind. The first is practical: convention and user expectation demands it. This isn’t the end of all considerations, but it means that anything that defies such convention needs to be not just better, but A LOT better in order to justify making the change.

The second is physical and a bit more subtle. It relates to Fitts’s Law (which boils down to the idea that big, close targets are easier to hit than small or far away targets). Since menus are “bound” to the edge of the screen which they border, they are essentially infinite in that direction–you can slam the pointing device as far in that direction as you like and get the same point.

However, menus on the left and right sides are only as tall as their line height, while menus at the top and bottom as wide as the text width–usually several times the effective target size. This leads them to be far easier to “acquire” (hit) than their horizontal brethren.

-Pete Bickford
(for uxtalk.wordpress.com, and a HT to Bruce Tognazzini)

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One response to “Good Questions: Why Not Move Menus to the Side?

  1. I agree with the width vs. height bit. However, if you’re messing with convention anyway, couldn’t you make the menus significantly “higher”? Usually you don’t have so many menus that you have to squish them too close together.

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