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Audience Fit


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6b. Write each menu so it offers a meaningful structure.

  • Organize a short menu in some easily recognizable pattern.
  • Break a long menu into groups.
  • Group items that refer to the same object.
  • In any group, sequence items in a way that reflects familiar organizations, such as chronological, important to unimportant.
  • Create one or more hierarchies out of your menu items.
  • Write the text of menu items to reveal the underlying structure, and to indicate the relationships between items.

Menus, like tables of contents, and even indexes, can offer a meaningful structure of objects—a value beyond simply offering choices. Make your writing reveal that meaning.

Search results and see-also lists do not provide a meaningful structure, because they are assembled "out of order."

In outlining your material, you have already organized your material in an order that adds meaning, and value, to the individual sections whose headings appear at the same level in a menu. Write individual items 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.

Other ways to make your menus meaningful:

6a. Think of a heading as an object you reuse many times.

6c. Offer multiple routes to the same information.

6d. Write and display several levels at once.

6e. When users arrive at the target, make it obvious.

6f. Confirm the location by showing its position in the hierarchy.

Resources on menus

Taking a Position on Menus

Heuristic Online Text (H. O. T.) Evaluation of Menus
















The Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) wrote: "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." This was confirmed by the English economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-82) by throwing beans into a box and estimating their number. He found that he never made a mistake with three or four, was sometimes wrong when there were five, was right about half the time with ten beans, and was usually wrong with fifteen. These experiments are cited by the American psychologist George Miller, the author of the famous paper, "The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two" (1956). Miller found that more items can be remembered when they are coded, or "chunked."
Gregory (1987)

Another reason to group operations is to break up a menu so it’s easier to read. —Apple (1987)

Use meaningful groupings of menu choices. …Use meaningful ordering of menu choices. —Hix & Hartson (1993)

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

Menus can also help aid long-term memory retrieval. Menu interfaces should be designed to present items in logical groupings rather than simply in alphabetical or random order. —Mandel (1994)

Long menu lists can usually be grouped into smaller logical groups to chunk items for users to remember more easily. Menu interfaces should be designed to present items in logical groupings rather than simply in alphabetical or random order. 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)

The Grouping choices into functional units will reduce mental effort and help people quickly interpret your whole page. For example, with the appropriate layout, people will quickly interpret a list of 12 adjectives (such as comedy, drama, Western, and so on) as a single set of movie genres. —Keeker (1997)

It must be possible somehow to read the structure to find good paths; the structure must be view navigable. —Furnas (1997)

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)

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)

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)

Make sure the structure itself stays clear wherever you are within the pyramid or tree. —Abeleto (1999)

To be useful to an Internet audience, each site must deliver entertainment or knowledge, or improve the way its audience accomplishes some important task (such as purchase ticks or get fit). … Tell potential audience members how your site is relevant to them. Identify related topics or tasks that are important to your target market. —Microsoft (2000)

"Non-linear" media require strong structures and content narratives. —Lynch (2000)

Group information to help readers create hierarchical frameworks for storing incoming information in long-term memory.

… We know that readers organize information in long-term memory in a hierarchical fashion (McKoon 1977). 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)

Design the interface to readily reveal the underlying information structure. … That is, the interface should suggest the Web site’s underlying information structure. The information structure, in turn, helps users better understand the relationships among the ideas that appear on the various pages of the Web site.—Farkas and Farkas (2000)

See bibliography: Abeleto (1999), Ameritech (1998), Apple (1987), Cooper (1995, 1999), Farkas and Farkas (2000), Furnas (1997), 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), Microsoft (2000), Miller (1956), Minasi (1994), Norman (1991), Price (1999),  Spyridakis (2000), Sullivan (1998), Thinus-Blanc and Gaunet (1999), Whitaker (1998)


Original Menu

Air Conditioning Background

Air conditioning department stores

Carrier patents an air conditioner

Chilling out a World’s Fair

Cooling the stock exchange

Gorrie’s refrigeration machines

Gorrie’s utopia

Movie theater air conditioned

Preserving corpses

Revised Menu

The Early Days of Air Conditioning

The Vision

Gorrie’s utopia, 1842

Gorrie’s refrigeration machines, 1851

Working Prototypes

Preserving corpses, 1899

Cooling the stock exchange, 1904

Chilling out a World’s Fair, 1904

The Air-Conditioning Business

Carrier patents an air conditioner, 1906

Movie theater air conditioned, 1917

Air conditioning department stores, 1919


Original Menu

Joseph Paxton

Author of books on flowers

Building orchid houses

Designing the Crystal Palace

Editor of Horticultural Register

Head Gardener at Chatsworth

Investment in railroads

Speculation: rail excursions

Startup: a tourism company

The creation of glass greenhouses

Worker at the Horticultural Society Gardens

Revised Menu

Joseph Paxton, Designer of the Crystal Palace


Working at the Horticultural Society Gardens

Running the gardens at Chatsworth

Editing the Horticultural Register

Authoring books on flowers

Railway speculator

Offering rail excursions

Starting a tourism company

Investing in railroads


Building orchid houses

Creating glass greenhouses

Designing the Crystal Palace


Audience Fit
If visitors want... 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. 
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.

Ready for some challenges?


Don't make me take an ax to your menu!

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