Ordering from the menu

19 August 2004


A Blue Perspective: Ordering from the menu

This question can only really be answered by a room full of lab rats, but my lack of time or money to perform user testing means its easier if I just write about it.

As I'm about to design the structure of a departmental online store, menus are weighing on my mind. And at this moment in time I'm wondering how they should be ordered.

As I see it, there's probably two types of menus: ones with strong coupling, and ones with weak coupling. Strongly coupled menus are ones where each of the items in the menu shares something with each of the others, or together they are a subset of a larger group e.g. faculties at a University: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, History, Literature, Law. Each of them is an area of study and together they form the intellectual scope of the University. In a weakly coupled menu, the items have relatively little to do with one another, other than being a delineation of a particular area e.g. pages on a personal web site: Home, Archives, About Us, Contact Us, Links.

As general rules, it seems that strongly coupled menus are generally organised alphabetically while weakly coupled menus are organised according to a subjective set of priorities. A good and topical example is the official site of the Olympic Games. On the left side of the home page is the main navigation – a weakly coupled menu – and the first two options display the priority that one would expect of visitors coming to the site: "Schedule" and "Medals". The next four or five are less clear: "Participants", "Sports", "Torch Relay", "News", "Tickets". Then after that it's pretty much a free for all. On the right side of the home page we have a perfect example of a strongly coupled menu – a list of all the sports being played at the Games. If you want to see results for equestrian – and who doesn't? – you know it starts with an "e" so you can go down the list and find it.

My main query is about permutations of these menus. How should you order the menu items in a weakly coupled menu when there's no discernible priority, such as the latter items in the Olympic Games' main navigation. Or what about strongly coupled menus that have priorities? In an online store I can imagine strongly coupled menu items that have higher priorities, perhaps from a site owner's perspective (areas that generate more revenue) or from a user's perspective (more popular product areas). Is it okay to disrupt the ordering of menu items to promote a select few areas, and then how do you order the remaining areas? Any thoughts? Does any of this even matter?




  1. 1/5

    Luke Moulton commented on 19 August 2004 @ 18:58

    Yeah it's a tough one. I recently redesigned a sporting event site which had a large number of weakly coupled menu items. The beauty of this project was the fact that is was a re-design, thus I was able to look at the stats from the previous year and see which areas were the most popular.

    With the current methods of design its much easier to alter elements once you have launched, particularly list itemed menus, so I don't recon you need to be too precious about getting it perfect the first time. People will find what their looking for if the nav structure is reasonably intuitive, then 3 months after launch, you can tweak the nav items.

  2. 2/5

    sam grigg commented on 20 August 2004 @ 04:18

    One benefit of stronly-typed menus is their predictability. If you know what you're looking for (e.g. equestrian events) you know exactly where to find it. Also, it's easier to discern if they don't have the item you're looking for. Basically, alphabetical sorting prevents the user from having to guess how you think things should be ordered.

    Unless you can do user testing, then you can get a pretty good idea of what a user might expect.

  3. 3/5

    mattymcg commented on 21 August 2004 @ 12:05

    zamboni you spammer, for someone whose forte is design, your web site really blows.

    Thanks for the food for thought Cam. My take on menu items that have a fairly high priority but are situated in a loosely-coupled hierarchy is that they are a good candidate for an alternative entry path. A nice shiny graphic on the front page that attracts their attention and takes them to the same place. It obviously depends on the situation as taking this too far can confuse navigation, but it can work well.

  4. 4/5

    Isaac Lin commented on 24 August 2004 @ 05:35

    Organizing a menu in priority order only works for a short menu. Users can roughly agree on the first, second, and third most-important link on your site, but it is impossible to determine what link is the eleventh-most important for everyone. No one will be able to remember where each item is, so they will have to scan the whole list each time, without any intuitive ordering cues beyond the first few items.

    I maintain a number of web pages for work, and they are essentially a hierarchy of weakly-coupled nested lists, each roughly sorted in priority order or chronological (in cases where steps of a process are being described). For the type of information I maintain, tables are a better way to organize strongly-coupled lists of categories.

  5. 5/5

    Gemini6Ice commented on 24 August 2004 @ 21:26

    I think the requirement changes as the list changes size. For a relatively short list, the categories make sense to be organized by priority, as well as the items within the categories.

    However, once an array gets too long for a user to take in fully in just one glance, alphabetical organization is probably better.

    I'm with Isaac Lin on this one.

    I think it's also important to offer a visual distinction between categories and their items. Also, a category tab/whatever in a menu should also direct a user to more detailed information about its children items.

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