The beginning of the end of the right-click menu

Right-click menus are problematic for novice (and also experienced) computer users for several reasons:

Novice users are surprised when you tell them you can right click things to get extra options.
Added complexity
After discovering that their interface to the computer has another variable, they can become confused as to which button they should use in which situation.
Too many options
Because GUIs usually have a lot of containment metaphors, right-clicking on a point means you could be directing your attention to any of several nested entities. As a result, context menus don’t have enough context and tend to be very long and hence difficult to find things in.

Discoverable, Entity Specific, Left-Click Context Menus

There is an alternative

  • When the user makes some gesture towards an object such as hovering over it, a discreet target is displayed close outside the border of the object.
  • If the user makes a gesture towards the target, hovering or clicking, it expands to show possible contextual actions for that object.
  • Otherwise, if the user moves in a different direction, the target disappears.

IMHO, this goes some way to solving the problems above. Newbies can discover contextual functinoality easily. They don’t need to worry about an extra mouse button. And the menus can be entity-specific, so the functionality can be simplified. Plus, this interface is an evolution: it can be complimentary to the standard right-click menus.


Small Entities
Sometimes the user may want to direct attention to a small part of the interface, for example a character in a text editor or a pixel in a graphics package. These are valid conceptual entities and as such should have associated actions and options. However, it seems impossible to display a context menu target for every mouse over of such entities – The smaller the entity, the harder it is to avoid the menu target.
Overlapping Entities
Sometimes different conceptual entities take up exactly the same screen real estate. This increases the complexity of the contextual menu, but no more than that of a right-click menu.

Microsoft Office 2007

This pattern has popped up as one of the changes in the new MS Office interface overhaul. Here’s what happens when you select a piece of text. Look closely, there’s a hint of a contextual toolbar there:

Office 2007 contextual popups

As you move your mouse towards the faint target it gets solid and you can directly change the properties of the text:

Office 2007 contextual popups

If you move your mouse in the opposite direction it disappears and never comes back.

Office 2007 contextual popups

It seems the Office team have only used this on text selections and only for text formatting properties so far. It works in Excel and Power point as well. If you want to try out the new interface for yourself, Microsoft have set up vanilla installs that you can interact with through a website without installing anything. You have to have Internet Explorer on Windows, and be willing to install some ActiveX remote desktop plugin.


Here’s another example from Flickr. Right-click menus are even less discoverable on the web, since not even experienced users expect them. Hence, Flickr does this when you mouse over a person:

Flickr contextual menus

Flickr contextual menus

Seen any other examples?

3 Responses to “The beginning of the end of the right-click menu”

  1. danger Says:

    Interesting. But if we’re moving away from them, how come the new google docs/spreadsheets, ms live betas and yahoo stuff all are starting to use right click menus? I really like context-sensitive right click menus. I think as a paradigm it makes absolute sense – left click to select, right click to show actions particular to your selection.

    Drifting off topic… If you are talking about unnecessary complexity, just look at your comments form! I find it incredibly confusing – now I’m posting on sxore? Is that one of your sites? Do I really have to click that little ‘what’s this?’ And you want me to tag my comment? That’s an awful lot to go through, especially on top of a captcha.

    The button even says ‘sxore it’ – is that even going to post my comment? This is the last time I’m going to bother trying to submit this, what does ‘|’ in a captcha mean? I? i, | capital L?

  2. r0wb0t Says:

    Ha! Yeah you got me there. I’ve been wavering on dumping Sxore for a while. They definately have usability issues which I’ve been meaning to talk about. For the record, I have no connection to Sxore, apart from using the free service. Sxore is a service of Sxip, a distributed identity company, who are having a lot of personnel problems at the moment from what I hear. I’ll probably install the wordpress OpenID plugin instead soon.

    Regarding your examples of new right-click menus on the web, it is hard for web apps to "move away" from right-click menus since they have been so absent in the past. It is an obvious step for these applications to take in trying to provide a desktop-like experience. My thought is that web apps could embrace their constraints and instead lead the way for desktop apps in providing an alternative more usable alternative to the right-click. I wonder if any of these companies are keeping track of usage patterns with regard to their context menus?

    You say:

    >> I think as a paradigm it makes absolute sense – left click to select, right click to show actions particular to your selection.

    Well… absolute sense is going a bit too far. For you, now, after years of experience, it makes absolute sense. But it’s just another wierd thing that has to be learned about computer interfaces. It doesn’t correspond to any real-world interaction. A major goal of the interface designer should be to reduce reliance on learned idioms.

  3. Des Traynor Says:

    Good post, it is interesting to watch how some web apps seem to be doing their darndest to claim back some desktop things such as right click, sliders, drag and drop, whereas others are simply using what they have, i.e. hovers.

    Ditto on the comment form btw 🙂

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