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:
As you move your mouse towards the faint target it gets solid and you can directly change the properties of the text:
If you move your mouse in the opposite direction it disappears and never comes back.
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:
Seen any other examples?