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Thursday, October 14, 2004

'Intelligent' menus

One of Windows 2000/XP's Amazing New Features(TM) is the automatic tidying-up of menus in applications. The idea is simple - Windows monitors all your mouse clicks on menus (potential for some dodgy spyware there?) and counts them up, deciding which ones you use regularly and which ones you use very infrequently.

The infrequently-used ones are then given a flag to say they are 'hidden', meaning that they don't appear when the menu is next opened. Instead, a small arrow is drawn to allow the user to toggle the menu to show all the options including the hidden ones.

"What a marvellous, logical, convenient, time-saving idea!" I hear you all mutter. Unfortunately, this feature is none of these.

The human mind works very much in a visual and physical way. Touch-typists will be very much aware of this, for example the keys on their keyboard always produce a letter 'F' on the left index finger (under QWERTY at least).

Here's an experiment to try on an unwitting lecturer or fellow student: swap all the keys on their keyboard around, and in software alter the keyboard mapping to match. Your poor colleague will have much difficulty typing, as none of the keys are where they expect them to be, through months of learning and practising what finger movements to make in order to enter the required characters. You generally don't have to watch what you're typing, you just know that certain movements of the finger (often only a few mm) will cause you to hit a different key. And usually, you get it right - because you're used to it.

The aforementioned feature in Windows works in very much the same way - arbitrarily and seemingly at random Windows will suddenly hide a menu option on one of its menus. You may never have used that option, but suddenly your menu will be one item - or more - shorter. Other items on the menu are no longer where you expected them to be. 'Print' may now be in the top third of the menu rather than 'just below the middle'. Your mind has to stop and think now, as the layout of the menu is unfamiliar. And just when your mind gets used to the new shape and layout of the menu, Windows goes and changes it again.

Not a well-thought-out feature.


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