What are context menus for?
February 16, 2010 1:56 AM   Subscribe

Is there evidence that the average computer user is familiar with context menus?

Hypothesis: Given the increasing level of computer familiarity of the average (non-nerd) computer user, users can now be expected to discover functionality which is only available via a context menu.

Can anybody point me to evidence that supports or falsifies this hypothesis? If there's really no evidence, then recent opinion statement or UI guidelines from respected authorities would be good.

Personal opinions are not useful, unfortunately, I have plenty of those already.
posted by emilyw to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm afraid this lies right on the border of personal opinion, but I can say that I work in an Apple Store and only about one in ten of my customers even know that Macs HAVE contextual menus. To them, no right-mouse-button means no-secondary-click means no-contextual-menus.

I'd be fascinated to know if there is any actual data on this question.
posted by raygan at 2:56 AM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, the context is MS Windows, although evidence from other systems would still be interesting.

raygan, does that mean that many of your customers DO understand that a right mouse button (if it existed) would produce a context menu?
posted by emilyw at 3:19 AM on February 16, 2010

... is that what they're called? *facepalm* I never knew - I always just figured it was the right-click-option-list.

A quick googling brings up the Android developer guidelines re: menu design - the bit on context menus:
If a user can fully access your application without using Context menus, then it's designed properly! In general, if part of your application is inaccessible without using Context menus, then you need to duplicate those commands elsewhere.
So I imagine devs tend to assume people don't use context menus and/or don't know they exist.
posted by Xany at 3:55 AM on February 16, 2010

I can only offer anecdotal evidence unfortunately, but it may be relevant. I worked for five years writing Windows software for the education market (specifically the 11-18 age range). This was from the mid-90s until 2000, so the target audience was probably in the 'average-to-slightly-experienced' range by current standards. And we never, ever put anything into a context menu (by which I mean specifically a right-click context menu - there are other types) that wasn't accessible in an obvious way by other means.

If I remember my reading from the time, it's widely understood that a context menu is there for the sort of advanced user who you can expect to learn your application inside-out and find such things an aid to efficiency in common tasks. So they have their place in wordprocessors, image editors, that sort of thing. But the safe assumption has always been that a user will probably never right-click, except by accident.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:00 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well the Microsoft Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines explicitly states:
Don't make commands only available through context menus. Like shortcut keys, context menus are alternative means of performing commands and choosing options. For example, a Properties command is also available through the menu bar or the Alt+Enter access key.
Anecdotally speaking I'm sure that I and countless other mefites can give you heaps of examples of users who would N.E.V.E.R be able to use a feature if it was only available in a context menu. You might as well tell them it's on Mars.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:08 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

So I imagine devs tend to assume people don't use context menus and/or don't know they exist.

I don't think this is the reason: A context menu is supposed to change based on context (duh), and provide quick access to useful functionality. Everything you can do with an application should be reachable in a canonical, easy to find and remember way. Hunting around for something in context menus, which you can't see until you actually are in the proper context, is a recipe for frustration.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:11 AM on February 16, 2010

My suspicion is that average users aren't aware of contextual menus per-se. That is, they aren't aware that that's what they are called or that there is anything special about right-clicking in one situation over another situation. It's more a case of "I right-click and chose from the menu." There is no recognition of the context or how that context relates to the specific menu you get.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:14 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I teach the use of geographical information systems at the university level. The majority of my students want to take the class and are pursuing a major, minor or certificate related to GIS. I'd say most of them are more computer savvy than the general student population, though not to the comp.sci./engineering level. The software we use makes heavy use of context menus. I have to constantly remind them to use the context menus.
posted by mollweide at 4:57 AM on February 16, 2010

Here's a 2007 study of novice Firefox users and their interactions with tabbed browsing.
The user study also revealed that novices encountered difficulty when it came to closing tabs. We found that tab closure was not immediately discoverable for novices. Seven out of seven users initially closed tabs by invoking the context menu.
The then-current default UI for closing a tab was a red X at the far right end of the tab section, which was left-justified. As noted in the paper, this was confusing, because users weren't sure if this would close all tabs, or the window, or what exactly. (These days, Firefox has the close X on each tab.)

Context menus were useful in that case because they mean "Hey, on This Specific Thing, what can I do?" Assuming you know they exist, of course.

You're not asking specifically about web-based applications, but I'd argue that the popularization of web apps for common tasks may lead to a decline in novice familiarity with right-click context menus, since they generally invoke local (browser- and OS-specific) functions like "save this" and "reload", etc. As the line between OS and browser and web app blurs and users care less about their local computer, that cognitive jump will be harder to make. Users may decide that right-clicking is less useful because it rarely provides functions they want on the object they right-clicked. mollweide's students have grown up with web applications; perhaps that's one reason they don't instinctively right-click, even in technical non-web software?

That said, some web apps are moving in other direction. I currently have a project to upgrade a third-party web application with an overhauled UI. The current version has a standard "select this with a checkbox, then pick an action from the icon toolbar" model. The new version retains that, but also uses captured right-click events to display context menus on objects with relevant commands from the toolbar. It's trying to bridge the gap, and I wonder how many users will discover the right-click option.
posted by jmcmurry at 5:53 AM on February 16, 2010

I've taught people how to use various Windows applications since 1996. While I have had a handful of students who will go for a context menu before any other option, the vast majority walk into the classroom knowing little about context menus. Even after I have taught how to use certain apps using context menus 90% of the time (because the combination of toolbars and menus were so inconsistent and because useful features were so quickly available from context menus), many still prefer to use menus and toolbars versus playing Find My Choice One Or Two Levels Deep In This Context Menu.
posted by maudlin at 6:30 AM on February 16, 2010

A friend worked on windows app targeted squarely at relatively unsophisticated computer users. He said that in their usability research, they found that a surprising number of people in their target market new to use context specific menus, at least in some contexts, but they didn't necessarily translate that knowledge to new contexts.
posted by Good Brain at 9:54 AM on February 16, 2010

Whoops! "...new to use..." should, of course be "...knew to use..."
posted by Good Brain at 9:55 AM on February 16, 2010

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