25 June 2004
Micrsoft aren't as famed for their usability analysis as, say Bruce Tognazzini, but there's one thing that particularly bugs me in their post 98 OSs – whenever I call a new computer home, I automatically switch off "Personalized Menus".
For those unfamiliar with Microsoft's "personalisation" it involves removing menu items which it thinks you don't need, which is usually the ones you don't use very often – I'm not sure of the exact process by which a menu item becomes impersonal. It's particularly infuriating in Microsoft Office XP which doesn't follow the Windows preset and for which I can't find the control switch. Office has its own particularly ruthless culling criteria which removes all menu items you haven't used in the past 10 seconds.
Why do I find this behaviour annoying? Because I can never be certain what's going to be in a menu when it pops down. One of the rules in usability is to let the user know what to expect. After getting into a groove with an interface, no matter how usable it is initially, you become an expert at it, you can perform things by rote. Most of the time you don't even really need to look at the options in a menu: move the mouse 20 pixels from the top of the screen, click, move it down 100 pixels, click, text pasted. But if the menus are constantly in a state of flux you are never sure what to expect. "Paste" might be 100 pixels down now, but if "cut" gets removed from the menu, where is it later?
Then, what happens when you want to use "cut"? You don't use it that often, so it's not hardwired into your movement. You click on "Edit" and look for it. It's not there. You look for it again, just to make certain. (It takes the human brain much longer to determine that something isn't in a list than to determine that something is) Then you remember to click those little down arrows so that you can see the full menu. Quick mental re-organisation while you sort the menu options that were there previously from the new ones. Then, search for "cut". Urgh. I just wasted three seconds.
Why have this feature? All I can think of is that it shortens the menu, giving you a smaller set to search from initially, with Microsoft guessing that one of those will be what you want. Marginally better for the new user, but much worse for the experienced user. Even then, new users can get lost trying to find functionality that's normally fairly easy to find. I mean, "Create new document" gets hidden. If you weren't certain that it was under the "File" menu option you might look under the six others before going back and expanding.
That's just my 2 cents, if you find it handy, just say so.
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