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Write Menus that Mean Something

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There are several keys to writing meaningful menus for your website. Jonathan and Lisa Price bring you up to speed with this chapter from their book "Hot Text: Web Writing That Works."
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Write a Heading as an Object You Will Reuse Many Times

Figure 1

Background: A heading must be reusable

A heading does more than describe the content right below it. The heading may appear in many other locations—in a menu at the start of a section, in a FAQ menu, inside running text as a link, in search results, and in other menu-like objects. If the heading is also the title of a page, it appears at the top of the window as well.

Plan to use the same heading over and over—as a single object without modification—in almost every location.

It is reassuring to users to see an item such as Business and Financial Services and, after it has been selected, a screen that is titled Business and Financial Services. (Shneiderman, 1992)

At the day of judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.
—Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ

Avoid making people wonder: "Did I land at the page I wanted, or did I make a mistake? Is this the same section I visited before, or is it subtly different?"

Headline text has to stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is unavailable. (Nielsen, 1999f)

One exception occurs when you are embedding the heading inside running text, where you lead up to its link, giving some of the context. The full text of your heading may look pretty awkward in this situation. So trim from the end, if you must adjust it. (People expect the beginning text to be the same in both locations).

Generally, though, write so the heading does double duty, acting as the beginning of the article, and—without change—as an isolated advertisement for the contents of that article (as in a menu or search list).

In every circumstance, the heading answers the question: what is this article about?

Write longer headings

Brevity is not a virtue in headings. The purpose of a menu is to reveal all the choices open to a user, but extremely terse headings may be impenetrable, or so general as to be ambiguous. If your team has spent three weeks trying to come up with one-word names for departments, and you keep forgetting the distinction, well, what will your guests think?

Our menus have to explain what a given function does, not just where to invoke it. Because of this, it behooves us to be more verbose in our menu-item text. (Cooper, 1995)

Make the heading fully expressive of the content, so users can distinguish this section from others like it in a menu or a search list. And if you have a department that posts new articles every week, go beyond the department title to describe this week's column in some detail.

Promote topics, articles, guests, or features specifically and dynamically (for example, "This week, Jon Stamos on Freudianism in TVTalk") as opposed to generically promoting a section of content (for example "See stars in TVTalk"). (Keeker, 1997)

The menu item (a.k.a, the heading) should be distinctive, specific, and long enough to be clear, but not any longer.

Explain what the article is about using terms that a guest might use. No puns, insider jokes, or metaphors—just the gist of the content. Teasing headlines may get people to click and go, only to find the page is nothing like what they expected. As a result, people grow leery of any heading that might mean several different things, or may glance at its subject sideways.

If possible start off with a keyword, so someone skimming through a search list can spot your article under that topic. Of course, struggling to express the content of the article fully, while distinguishing one heading from another, may make it difficult to put an important, information-carrying word first. No one said writing headings would be easy. But the hard work is worth it because guests rely so heavily on the headings when trying to understand your overall structure, predict content, and make efficient choices.

Precise knowledge is the only true knowledge, and he who does not teach exactly, does not teach at all.
—Henry Ward Beecher

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit.
—Bertrand Russell

Make the heading complete on its own, too. Do not depend on some higher-level heading as if it were the beginning of a sentence, completed by this heading. Guests may never have seen that higher-level heading.

Compare your heading with others in its menu

Because people may encounter your heading in a menu before they read the page, edit the heading in the context of the other items on that menu.

Group together items that refer to the same thing, and then write each heading so a user can tell the difference between each item in the set. In this way, you help users compare, contrast, and choose.

Ensure that items are distinct from one another. (Shneiderman, 1992)

To show that several headings refer to the same kind of topic (a procedure, say, or a product description), write all these headings in the same grammatical form. Consistency makes people more successful in spotting what the items have in common, and then making a choice.

Examples

Before

After

Introduction

Introducing the Unified Process

Boolean Conditionals

Writing IF, THEN, and ELSE Statements

Organizing

Organizing Your Time in a Plan

Ordering

Putting Sections of a Document in Order

Outlining

Creating an Outline for your Document

Structuring

What Goes on When You Structure a Document

Estimation Fundamentals

Starting your Estimate

Pre-submission Circulation Getting In-House Feedback on your Estimate
Follow-ups on Comments

Revising the Estimate

Submission Process

Submitting Your Estimate to he Client


Audience fit

If visitors want this...

How well does this guideline apply?

To have fun

When people want to be entertained with double meanings, "punny" headings may amuse. But remember that many guests use search engines to discover your page, and a terse, joking, or abstract heading may repel.

To learn

No jokes, please. We're in school. Flat-footed titles and headings work best.

To act

Make the heading indicate that you are going to tell people how to do something. Use an infinitive, or gerund—To do, or Doing.

To be aware

You can't avoid multiple overtones, and deliberate ambiguity, so ignore the guideline.

To get close to people Straightforward, consistent headings and titles reassure your readers.

See: Conklin (1987), Cooper (1995), Farkas and Farkas (2000), Keeker (1997), Mandel (1997), Nielsen (1999f), Raskin (2000), Shneiderman (1992), Shneiderman and Kearsley (1989).


Write Each Menu So It Offers a Meaningful Structure

Figure 2

Background: People learn by discovering structure

Guests rarely try consciously to figure out the way you have organized your site. But as they look through a menu, trying to understand just enough of the structure to be able to carry out their tasks, people do ask some questions, implicitly, under their breath:

  • Why are all of these topics put together in a single menu?

  • What do these topics have in common?

  • Would the topic I am looking for belong in this menu?

  • What information lies behind this item, or that one?

  • How are these two topics different?

  • Why are these topics grouped together?

  • Why do the topics appear in this particular sequence?

  • Does this menu really contain everything about the topic I think it describes?

  • Which item might contain the information I am after?

    It must be possible somehow to read the structure to find good paths.
    —Furnas, Effective View Navigation

As your menu items respond to these questions, in unspoken dialogue, guests begin to form a fuzzy mental model of the menu's structure.

And, visiting several menus, guests begin to sense the structure of the site as a whole. Learning is, in part, a process of uncovering patterns in the material. Menus make those patterns visible—if you write the items well.

Humans are driven to seek out structure and pattern. By implication, readers will learn the "flow" of your site—but only if you let them. (Sullivan, 1998)

You will understand your material better if you try out various methods of organizing the items on a menu, to uncover new and deeper meanings. Consider several alternate structures before freezing your structure, using some or all of these tactics:

  • Move topics around considering whether the new structure reveals more about the individual objects and their relationship. (Maybe these items should appear down here.)

  • Eliminate duplicate or redundant topics. (Oh, this is the same as that!)

  • Annotate topics, writing preliminary drafts and notes. (Oh, this is what lies behind this phrase. This is what the link leads to.)

  • Add a topic that was missing or delete one that is unnecessary or irrelevant. (Oh, now I see that if we cover x, we must also cover y).

  • Replace a topic with its components. (Now I see that that term really covered three different subjects, each of which belongs at this level).

  • Divide a topic into components, putting them on a submenu. (Oh, so these are the pieces of that.)

  • Create a new topic to serve as a menu item leading to a group of subtopics. (Yes, these all go together somehow, and I think this new menu item is the name of their group.)

  • Disassemble a set of subtopics. (Now I see that these really are not related, and should be parceled out among other topics).

  • Promote a subtopic or demote a topic. (Oh, this is less important than I thought, but this subtopic is actually just as important as other topics on the main menu, and ought to go there).

  • Group related topics. (Now I see these do belong together).

  • Sequence activities that take place one after the other. (Oh, these should be in order!)

  • Extend a range to include items that don't have a natural sequence or grouping. (Oh, this is a lot more common than that, and both are more common than this other thing).

  • Rewrite to emphasize similarity and difference. (Yes, these items all have to do with the same subject, so the language ought to indicate that.)

  • Verify that similar topics have similar subtopics. (Well, if Topic A has three subtopics, shouldn't its mate, Topic B, too?)

  • Confirm completeness. (I'm pretty sure now that I have not left anything out.)

    Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know human beings.
    —Confucius

Building a menu is a process of constant reorganizing. Of course, the effort is like making an outline, which most people fear and hate. But making an outline electronically, as a tool for others to use to understand and navigate your structure, makes sense. Remember, the guest chews your structure to taste your meaning, so you must chop, cook, and serve your material with full attention.

Help people find their way

"Wayfinding" involves picking up cues about your location, putting those together with information you already have, and building up a conceptual model of the structure you are moving through, so you can choose the right path to take next. Menus can either help or hinder this process.

Situational awareness ...[is the] continuous extraction of environmental information, integration of this information with previous knowledge to form a coherent mental picture, and the use of that picture in directing further perception and anticipating future events. (Whitaker, 1998)

Moving through physical space, we take an egocentric point of view ("I am moving"), and take one step after another ("I go forward, then turn left"). As we go, we build an internal map, using our understanding of our current location, the distance we have traveled, the directions we have turned, the amount of time that has passed during our trip, the relationship between the places we see along the way, and a sense of the unrolling sequence of scenes—navigation takes quite a bit of thinking, all by itself. The clearer this evolving conceptual map becomes, the better it serves to orient and help us as we collect and organize information that we pick up along the way.

In completing one discovery we never fail to get an imperfect knowledge of others of which we could have no idea before, so that we cannot solve one doubt without creating several new ones.
—Joseph Priestley, Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air

Like a physical map, a menu helps guide a guest through your site. The guest has a more-or-less conscious destination in mind, and uses one menu to select a path, then follows that path to another menu, and so on—through a structure that is hard to visualize, often inconsistent, fragmented, and unpredictable.

Knowing an environment is a dynamic process in which the current state of information is constantly being updated, supplemented, and reassigned salience depending on the short- and long-run purposes that activate a person's thoughts and actions. (Golledge, 1999a)

In an unfamiliar territory like your site, a newly arrived guest will often take the first path that looks promising, following a zigzag route through your material without bothering to analyze the structure you have built.

When stumped or curious, the guest may ponder your menus a little more thoughtfully. The menus offer a bird's eye view of the content, somewhat like a physical map, but unfortunately Web menus are usually expressed in text, rather than a two-dimensional image with representations of landmarks, routes, neighborhoods, and boundaries.

Because users are in virtual space, aided only by verbal lists, finding their way around an unfamiliar Web site can be more challenging than exploring a strange city at night. If you want to help these visitors, you must think of each menu as a set of well-lit street signs. The challenge is to organize and write those signs so that visitors can find their way while moving at high speed.

Menus add value

Menus, like tables of contents, site maps, and even indexes, can provide a meaningful structure of objects—a value beyond the simple offer of choices. Write headings to reveal the meaning you see in that structure.

Help viewers understand the nature of the relationships you use, e.g., use hierarchies or heterarchies of information that embody clear, logical structures. Because viewers become easily bored, disinterested, or irritated with lists of unordered items or links, and have difficulty finding specific information in random lists, create useful organizational structures to support scanning and locating information. (Ameritech, 1998)

Search results and see-also lists do not show any particular structure, because they are assembled "out of order." Your menu reveals more, because you have actually worked on the structure. Let each heading show some of your reasoning about its relationship to the other items on the menu.

You have organized your menu items in an order that adds meaning and value to the individual sections whose headings appear at the same level in a menu. Write individual headings so that:

  • One heading bounces off another, illuminating both.

  • Users begin to perceive why certain headings are grouped together.

  • Users sense a certain sequence, from the early headings to the last.

  • Users begin to get a sense of what this whole section is about.

  • Users get a hunch about where the information they want may lie.

  • Users form a mental map of the order of topics, a map they will use when they begin navigating the material.

Group and sequence menu items

When experimenters show people a random assortment of objects on a tray and then hide the tray, most people have difficulty remembering more than nine objects. But when the experimenters put the objects into groups, people remember them much more accurately.

If you throw a handful of marbles on the floor, you will find it difficult to view at once more than six, or seven at most, without confusion.
—Sir William Hamilton

Grouping helps people spot the organization of your menu, find what they want, and recall the organization more accurately later.

The screen layout and organization of menus allow users to assign meanings to the groupings and make both the menus and the individual choices more memorable. (Mandel, 1997)

Group sets of headings that serve the same purpose (five how-to's), describe the same kind of object (seven types of music) or answer the same kind of question (troubleshooting your printer). If the subject matter has common or standard categories, use those to group headings. Doing so reduces the amount of thinking people have to do as they use your menu, because they quickly grok the rationale behind each group, reducing even a long menu to a few groups.

Break up groups visually, too. Then the menu is easier to read.

Don't let menus just run on with a dozen submenu items without offering the eye and the brain some grouping clues. (Minasi, 1994)

Then order items within each group and create a recognizable order out of the groups. One way to organize items or groups is to create a range from familiar to unfamiliar, from general to specific, from most commonly used to least, from first to last. Only use alphabetic or numeric order when you have a very long list of items that have no other obvious organizing feature. According to Don Norman's research (1991), these orderings are only slightly more helpful than purely random order. Of course, to hint at your order, you may need to tinker with some of the headings again—more rewriting.

Watch your hierarchy

Grouping headings into menus, submenus, and sub-submenus creates a hierarchy. In general a hierarchy helps people store incoming information and remember it, because people organize the information in their long-term memories (LTM) in hierarchies.

Chunking or grouping information items facilitates the reader in building these LTM frameworks and decreases attentional demands because readers can perceive the text structure more easily. (Spyridakis, 2000)

So, when you group information items at various levels and provide cues in your writing as to why you organized the items in this way, people begin to understand the underlying information structure.

But remember, not too deep. In any area, two or three levels work best, with four to eight choices on each level. According to Don Norman's research, this menu structure results in faster, more accurate performance, compared with more levels containing fewer items at each level. Alan Cooper, who started life as a computer jock, points out that computer geeks tend to find hierarchies logical and familiar, but most users do not. So, write each heading to indicate why you are putting it together with its neighbors.

Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.
—Minna Antrim, Naked Truth and Veiled

Of course, the tradeoff between depth and breadth may be a distraction from the main challenge, which is revealing the menu organization to your users, while reducing the number of pages they have to go through and the number of choices they have to make.

Think of each menu as a jungle gym that users are climbing over. Build it, sand it, and open it up so they can climb quickly, and surely. If you get lazy, your guests will skin their knees.

Examples

Before

After

  • Setup Procedures

  • Powering on the monitor

  • Powering on the hard disk drive

  • Powering on the computer

  • Powering on the CD-ROM drive

  • Making the connection with the local network

  • Attaching cables to computer

  • Locating the power cable

  • Attaching the power cable

  • Finding the right spot to place the computer

  • Using an extension cord, power bar, and surge suppressor

Setup Procedures

Before you Start:

Finding the right spot to place the computer

Using an extension cord, power bar, and surge suppressor

Hooking Things Up:

Attaching cables to computer

Locating the power cable

Attaching the power cable

Turning on the Power:

  1. Powering on the monitor

  2. Powering on the hard disk drive

  3. Powering on the CD-ROM drive

  4. Powering on the computer

Getting on Your Network

Making the connection with the local network


Audience fit

If visitors want this...

How well does this guideline apply?

To have fun

Only game players like confusing, long menus, because of the challenge.

To learn

Hey, grouping and hierarchies foster long-term memory. Enough said.

To act

Organizing menus in a meaningful way speeds people on their way.

To be aware

Why not be aware of your guests' needs?

To get close to people

The more time you spend sanding your menu items, the smoother the ride.

See: Abeleto (1999), Ameritech (1998), Apple (1987), Cooper (1995, 1999), Farkas and Farkas (2000), Golledge (1999a), Gregory (1987), Hix & Hartson (1993), Keeker (1997), Krug (2000), Larson & Czerwinski (1998), Lynch (1960), Lynch (2000), MacEachren (1992), Mandel (1994, 1997), McKoon (1977), Miller (1956), Minasi (1994), Norman (1991), Price (1999), Spyridakis (2000), Sullivan (1998), Thinus-Blanc and Gaunet (1999), Whitaker (1998).

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