Rich Menus

You may remember that
last week
I described the textual separators that we use in Office 12 menus
to improve
a few
specific scenarios.

Another way we've enhanced menus is a design we call "rich menus."

The idea is simple: include descriptive content within the menu itself to
help people find the right choice. Although
Super Tooltips provide another
mechanism to add descriptions to commands, rich menus are ideally suited for
short menus in which the feature names themselves wouldn't necessarily be
successful at conveying what a feature is for.

Take, for example, the very useful
Freeze Panes feature in Excel. This
feature makes it possible to "freeze" part of the grid on the screen so that you
can see it even as you scroll a different part independently. It is frequently
used to keep a set of title cells in view as the data scrolls next to it.

Many people wish there was a way to do this in Excel, but can't figure out
how. Even if they stumble upon the "Freeze Panes" item on the Window menu,
clicking it provides no real hint of how it is to be used. Turning it on doesn't
make it clear what it's used for and, in fact, can make it seem like your
spreadsheet is broken.

Although power users couldn't live without Freeze Panes,
few people stumble upon it and are able to use it by themselves. Eventually,
someone shows them what it's for and how to use it, or they are motivated to
read a book or web site in which they are walked through how it works. In fact,
thousands of web pages are devoted to imparting the trick to the uninitiated.

In Excel 12, here's what you see when you click the Freeze Panes button in
the Ribbon:

This screenshot illustrates a couple of different parts of the Office 12 UI.

First, it's a rich menu, meaning that a short description follows the name of
the feature. This makes it straightforward for someone to discover what a
feature is used for.

Second, following our design tenet of trying to make it easy to get the most
commonly sought-after results in a single click, you can now freeze the first
row or column, regardless of the selection. This is the most common use of
Freeze Panes, and through this menu, many people will be able to use the feature
who never could figure it out before.

Third, it shows the
again, in this case separating the two different classes of
"Freeze Panes" functionality.

All of these enhancements conspire to help people use a part of Excel they
might not otherwise have been able to figure out.

Comments (28)

  1. Roy says:

    Will there be an option to hide the descriptive text? As a "power user", I might soon grow tired of seeing it. :p

  2. Mal Ross says:

    I can’t see that this would get in your way, Roy. If you’re a keyboard-based power user, I doubt the menu would stay on the screen long enough for it to irk you. Even if you use the mouse, the extra size of the menu items will make them easier to click.

  3. DmitryKo says:

    Yes, I too would like to have the ability to remove it. Even if it’s a feature that I use once or twice a month, I don’t need explanations for things like ‘Freeze Top Row’ anyway, and I’m not going to remember hundreds of keyboard combinations just in order to remove these tips.

  4. Justin Piper says:

    Aren’t there any keyboard accelerators for "rich menu" items? There weren’t any on the menus shown in "A Separate Piece," either.

  5. Adam says:

    Had there been any thoughts of indenting the descriptive text to the right a little bit?

    I’m curious how big a menu could get with this text in localized versions of Office.

  6. Sam says:

    I’ll wait and see for myself, but I can’t possibly imagine any real need to remove the description from these items.

    But I guess this is more of a religious question than one about usability.

  7. Matthew Pass says:

    Give me a ‘Freeze Top Row and First Column’ menu item and you’re there! 🙂

  8. SteveA says:

    I am sad to see this. As someone who ends up showing other people these things, my knowledge advantage is being eroded 🙂

    I tend to agree with Roy, that after a while I may get tired of it. However it is better to have this feature than start hiding it like the now disappearing personalised menus.

    BTW – Why is it freeze panes? Rather than freeze cells. Most end users don’t know what a pane is.

    Also in Excel how many times do you hear people refer to "tab" when they really mean "worksheet". Eg the sales data is on the sales tab (sic).

  9. Centaur says:

    Oh… Doesn’t the survey data tell you that users cannot read? [1] Now you give them 300% more text to not read. And, those who actually can read, are actually curious enough to open up help and read once, remember and never need the explanation again.


  10. Jeff Atwood says:

    I love that you guys are pushing the stale 1995-era GUI conventions into the next century with Microsoft’s flagship office suite.

    Amazing stuff. Posts like this on Jensen’s blog are, in a nutshell, why I still have hope for Microsoft.

    Don’t let Eeyore design your products! Keep pushing!

  11. I’m reading this blog and Alan Cooper’s About Face 2.0 at the same time, and there are some great lessons which you’ve learned very well. The idea that menu’s are a pedagogic vector is one of Alan’s "design axioms", just as the axiom to optimize for perpetuate intermediates. Great reads, keep them coming!

    (And I’d be interested in your view of About Face 2.0 as well, seeing as there are some obvious points on which you disagree).

  12. Sherrod Segraves says:

    The new menus are great. I love the larger, descriptive items. Not only will beginners be helped by the brief explanations, but even power users will benefit from the speed increase from larger click targets.

    On the other hand, the menus look cluttered. Too many things compete for visual attention.

    Try these:

    * Lighten the descriptive text with about 40% of the background color. In exchange for a bit of legibility, the menu will look cleaner and be much easier to scan.

    * Remove the shading from the icon area to the left. The shading ads visual clutter and groups the icons together. Icons should seem grouped with their respective menu items, not with each other.

    * Use sentence case, even for menu item titles. (Title Case Is Stilted and Somewhat Unnatural.) This is a subtle break from the Windows convention, but hey, that’s what your new UI is all about.

    * Figure out some way to keep group headings from interfering when scanning for known menu items. Perhaps you could make them less prominent than the menu items? This is the opposite of a normal heading, but it might work here.

  13. Antony says:

    First – I’m loving this blog.  Very well written, engaging, and terrfic content.

    Second – this is a really intelligent approach.  Freeze panes – great feature, but too obscure as it stands.

    Finally, a question – In the past I have spent a lot of time customising our installation of Word for my corporate environment (law firm).  Part of the time spent is on customising the menus – both removing ‘unnecessary’ items, and adding shortcuts to macros.  As a developer, can I make my open Rich Menu items?

  14. PatriotB says:

    Office 12 is introducing lots of neat, new UI widgets.  I’d love to see you guys push for the Windows team to implement some of these UI constructs at the API level.  Third party developers *are* going to mimick these constructs, so make it easy for them and simply add the functionality to the OS.  It’ll result in more consistency across all applications.

  15. Ben R. says:

    This seems like a great idea, except for the possibility of slowing the user down with too much text. Do you worry about overloading the menus with text? This could potentially make a menu slower to scan and even a bit intimidating for a new user.

    I’m curious: have you tested user speed with these menus vs. menus without the descriptive text? Of course, even if users are a bit slower at first with all this descriptive text, that’s probably a good thing in the long run…

  16. jensenh says:


    We haven’t per se, but we only use these in a very few cases, so I don’t think there would be an overall effect.

    Basically, if you know what you’re looking for, it won’t slow you down (and might in fact speed you up because of the bigger click targets.)

    If you don’t know what the heck you’re looking for, speed isn’t really an issue.  (Kind of like driving the wrong direction as fast as possible.)  I agree with you that it’s probably a good trade-off in the long run.

  17. Sendell says:

    In previous versions ‘freeze’ becomes ‘unfreeze’, while in the view menu there is a checkmark before ‘Status Bar’ for example. Not ‘Show Status bar’ and ‘hide Status bar’.

    Will it change?

    Will you also update the description for unfreeze?

  18. MJP says:

    This is a great idea for most users, but I would definitely want it turned off on my machine. I know what every menu command does and more or less where it is. The extra clutter makes it harder to scan the menu for the item I already know I want.

    Moreover, the click target may be larger, but it’s three times further away from current pointer location. I prefer a smaller distance to move even at the cost of a smaller target. (Yes, I already have the mouse speed set to the maximum.)

  19. joerg says:

    "Based on current selection" is not a very good explanation. I only have Excel 2000, so I don’t know if the design has changed, but in Excel 2000, you have to select the first row and column that you do *not* want to freeze. This puzzles me every time. (And the freezing when you have selected cell A1 is … unexpected.)

    Are the cells that will freeze highlighted in some way while the mouse is hovering over the menu item?

  20. Sendell says:

    >Are the cells that will freeze highlighted in >some way while the mouse is hovering over the >menu item?

    that would be neat!

  21. David Walker says:

    SteveA: Not only do many people call worksheets "tabs", since the worksheet name appears on a tab, but many people call an Excel file a "spreadsheet" when the official name for it is "workbook".  But mention a "workbook" and most people won’t know what you’re talking about.

    Even I call a worksheet a "tab" sometimes, or even a "page". I shouldn’t do that, since I’m a programmer and I know better.

  22. You may remember that last week I described the textual separators that we use in Office 12 menus to improve a few specific scenarios. Another way we’ve enhanced menus is a design we call "rich menus." The idea is simple: include descriptiv

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