Inside Analysis

Who Moved My Cheese-Finding Menu Option?

Click here. No, there. Wait, first navigate to this other screen, then gesture — not too much, though. Oops! That’s the wrong result entirely. Let’s try all of that again, assuming you can find the menu option you want before frustration sets in one more time.

Yes, things have changed. No longer can you rely upon the old standby roster of menu options, predictably located at the top left portion of your window: File, Edit, Format, View, Help. Instead, all bets are now off; any option can reside just about anywhere, look like anything, and perform whatever function a programmer might imagine.

But fear not, gentle reader: this tectonic shift won’t cause you much trouble, unless you’re one of those people with a real job who needs to get things done. In that case, you might choose to speak your mind on a few message boards, via social media (assuming you won’t get censored), or directly to someone in Silicon Valley.

Reason being, interface plays a critical role in that thing called work. Especially now that time-clocks run 24/7 all around the world, efficiency might as well be tantamount to success. If you and your organization aren’t hitting on all cylinders, some company somewhere is eating your market share right now.

So, what can you really do about this? Good question. For perspective, let’s take a quick gander at the past:

The first major rupture in the design of graphical user interfaces arguably took place with the dawn of the Internet. (Remember the text-only version? Great Britain still requires one, apparently.) Many of those first Web sites offered menu options that ran down the left side of the screen, thus representing an orthogonal shift. Crazy!

Those were the early days of HTML, when someone using frames was innovative. But creative types don’t like being boxed in. Just ask Salvador Dali. So by 1999, the big dollars of major media joined forces with the desire for design independence, and Voila! The Simpsons unveiled a site using vector-based graphics, then called Futuresplash.

Macromedia bought them up in a flash (pun intended), and a new day dawned for the World Wide Web. Designers could do just about anything they wanted: a virtual sky became the only limit (except for bandwidth). Of course, users had to download that plug-in, but before long, Flash became an industry standard, and menu options could go catawampus.

Then came Steve Jobs and mobile. In his dying days, the virtuoso of computer design shot one last torpedo from his flagship: by eschewing Flash on the iPhone and iPad, this one man effectively ended an interface dynasty. Now owned by Adobe, the Flash starship came crashing to the ground; HTML5 secured its foothold on the future.

This might be good news, but the jury is still out. That’s largely because we have so many forces at play: apps, devices, operating systems, browsers, languages, design styles, as well as multinationals. Which brings us to an overwhelming question: What will these mega-corporations do with all of their off-shore billions? But I digress…

The world of social media created the next major rupture, the aftershocks of which continue to rattle planet earth. Sites like Twitter demonstrated the beauty of purpose-built applications. It’s hard to not know how to use a site like that, or like Bitly. And yet, even these highly focused organizations keep changing their interface design.

Herein lies the ugly underbelly of Cloud computing: you don’t control it. Whether you’re dealing with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Yahoo!, the bottom line with Cloud is that you’re not in charge of the operation. Granted, that was also the case with traditional enterprise software, but still: this is the New Age, right?

Back to work — flow, that is. The beautiful thing about well designed workflow is that you essentially train workers just by having them use the tool. This is the optimal scenario for UI design: make sure that just about everyone can understand quickly and easily what to do and when.

But there’s the rub: all of us work in slightly different ways. Things that are intuitive for one person, can be downright cryptic for another; hence the long-standing value of those standard menu options living at the top left corner of your window. Once you know that simple rule, you can at least get started.

After all, workflow is what work is all about. If productivity (and thus success) is what you crave, then your workers must benefit from tools designed to minimize their app-involvement time. You don’t want extra clicks, but do want the right levels of information, and the right functionality.

Just remember that divergent forces are at play. The biggest of competitors don’t believe in coopetition. They believe in the lust for dominance. Consider the Instagram-Twitter smack-down. One day, stuff works. The next day? Fundamental functionality flies right out the window. That’s not good for the consumer, at all.

How can we tame the dragons of design desire? What can guide the New World Order of interface? If the sword of Damocles is competition, the sword of standards is Excalibur. Let’s hope Merlin can weave another mist, through which Uther will usher in a new era, marked by a fundamental agreement to collaborate for the greater good.

In other words, let’s agree upon some basic standards for interface design. The beginnings of such a framework already exist, with icons such as the gear being used to represent tools or options. That’s a great start. Perhaps, though, we’ll need to wait for the dust to settle on all this app/OS/hardware innovation.


Eric Kavanagh

About Eric Kavanagh

Eric has nearly 30 years of experience as a career journalist with a keen focus on enterprise technologies. He designs and moderates a variety of New Media programs, including The Briefing Room, Information Management’s DM Radio and Espresso Series, as well as GARP’s Leadership and Research Webcasts. His mission is to help people leverage the power of software, methodologies and politics in order to get things done.

Eric Kavanagh

About Eric Kavanagh

Eric has nearly 30 years of experience as a career journalist with a keen focus on enterprise technologies. He designs and moderates a variety of New Media programs, including The Briefing Room, Information Management’s DM Radio and Espresso Series, as well as GARP’s Leadership and Research Webcasts. His mission is to help people leverage the power of software, methodologies and politics in order to get things done.

7 Responses to "Who Moved My Cheese-Finding Menu Option?"

  • Chris
    January 28, 2013 - 1:22 pm Reply

    Good article, and true for externally consumed apps, as well as internal apps. Witness the number of organizations who impose a complete refresh of their websites. Whilst updates and additions are often necessary and welcome, wholesale changes are more likely to undermine user experience and cause dissatisfaction. Recent examples: Singapore Airlines – total replacement of an easy to use site with an over designed, over fussy, mess, obliging them to run an apology campaign, but no roll back to the original system. This was clearly designers gone mad. Massive pointless real-estate gobbling graphics, and incomprehensible attempt to use as many fonts as possible. iTunes has also imposed a major change in UI, and Facebook are pretty much always ‘tweaking’ their user experience and worrying their users on issues of privacy. Overall, in an our era of abundant flexibility, we seem to be in the hands of those who’s interests are best served by perpetual change, and a loss of focus on productivity at the internal and external user level.

    • Eric Kavanagh
      Eric Kavanagh
      January 29, 2013 - 4:32 pm Reply

      My sentiments exactly! Seriously, you hit all those nails right on their heads. Seems we’re living in an age of chaos, visually speaking. Or perhaps it’s like the Tower of Babel, but for UI. Or, perhaps I’m just getting old, finally! HA! Just kidding (sort of). Thanks so much for your perspective. I *completely* agree!

  • Wayne Kurtz
    January 28, 2013 - 3:55 pm Reply

    Lovely words Eric, but I don’t really hear you taking a stand on the new world of interface design. Is it a good thing or is it a bad thing? Does it really matter? All I can say is that I hate like hell to have to re-learn how to do some simple thing again every time a computer company re-invents itself. I think that at some point people will realize that the computer revolution is over and its now re-invent and re-sell the wheel… over and over again.

    • Eric Kavanagh
      Eric Kavanagh
      January 28, 2013 - 7:56 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comments, Wayne! My position is that the New World Order of interface design is both wonderful and disastrous, and that we need some type of standard by which we can all get along. ‘-) Will keep working on finding some way to communicate that message to the masses! Cheers!

  • -challis
    January 29, 2013 - 8:41 am Reply

    Fun read by I took no real message from it.

    • Eric Kavanagh
      Eric Kavanagh
      January 29, 2013 - 4:13 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comment! Looks like I should update the conclusion. The point is simply that I’m longing for some agreed-upon standard amongst UI designers to help us navigate this ever-changing visual world. Thanks!

  • Vijee Djega
    February 4, 2013 - 9:51 am Reply

    Thank you for a very good article. It is good to take a step (or a couple of them back) and see the whole thing as a forest as vs. a tree thing. I am curious to know your thoughts about webrtc, white space and byod. Not surprisingly, i have a vested interest in these three in particular, but its good for me, as a conference organizer to collect information from very diverse sources.

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