User Experience

Searchable Menus: Using Text to Navigate Complexity

The Problem

One of my favourite features of my Samsung Galaxy SII is it’s ability to create a Wi-Fi hotspot. I find myself using it regularly to give my laptop internet access when I forget my 3G USB modem at home or when I travel to a city where the modem’s carrier doesn’t have 3G services.

The hotspot works like a charm, but getting to the menu item to activate it however, is a pain as the following screenshots show:

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Similarly, the other day I was editing a document in Word and wanted to edit the header. Call me stupid, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it! After a couple of minutes of trying to figure it out, I ended up having to Google “Word 2010 Header”.

Both these scenarios highlight the huge and ever-growing problem of navigating complexity in software. But it’s not as if software developers are not trying to address this issue. Microsoft for example, has put in a massive amount of effort in making the Office menu usable as it grown more complex, and their latest solution is the Office Ribbon. You can read the story of the Office Ribbon, and take a trip down memory lane. I “borrow” a couple of slides from Jensen Harris’ deck to quantitatively illustrate how menu complexity has grown over the years:

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So how do we navigate this complexity and get to what we need quickly even if it is buried several levels deep? What we currently do is learn how to get to a particular menu item, then try to memorise it for the future. It may take us a few tries before it is committed to memory. Then, everything is OK until a new version of the software is released, we have to learn it all over again. The level of angst this causes has probably been unknown until social networks came along and allowed users to give instant feedback. It is clearly evident from the number of exclamation marks that accompany Facebook status updates every time the Facebook layout changes. Yes, we ultimately get used to it the new layout and the new way of managing privacy, but the amount of time wasted is phenomenal!
 
This is certainly not the shortest distance between “our brain thinking we want to do something” and “actually performing the activity”. The ideal solution is of course, the device just reading our thoughts, and while there is some amazing research going into making this a reality, we are still stuck with giving commands to our machines for now. Meanwhile, Apple is once again pushing the boundaries of user experience, but voice commands have clear limitations and are not suitable for general purpose use. At least not yet.
 

The Solution

I believe there is a simple, elegant solution to the problem that we can apply immediately. It is the idea of making menu items searchable using text, or simply “Searchable Menus”.
 
Specific implementations of this proposed “Searchable Menus” pattern would of course vary according to device, platform and type of application.

Consider the scenario of firing up the WiFi hotspot on my phone. If I search for “hotspot” this is what I get:

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The Google Search Android app already searches apps, text messages, and visited web pages, so why not menu items as in the following mockup?
 
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Similarly, in Word, a “Command Search” pane or similar UI element could be used to enable searchable menus.
 
Revisiting the header editing scenario, one would simply need to type in “header” and get a list of relevant menu items as follows:
 
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Searchable menus can be context sensitive. For example, I would just select some text and type in “super” into the “Command Search” , which would list relevant commands:

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This way, I get Word to do what I want in what soon after me thinking “I want to make this text superscript” and getting Word to do it for me.

Searchable Menus also solves the problem of relearning software every time a significant change to the UI is made.

Predictive analytics could be used to optimise the search results for the particular user. For example, often used commands could appear larger or nearer the top of the search results or use colour to stand out. It could also be used to suggest items that have the same meaning as what has been typed in, so we don’t have to remember exactly what the menu item is called. Relevant data could be stored in the cloud so that moving from one platform or device to another would be smooth and seamless.

Ultimately, I believe Searchable Menus have huge potential to make users more productive in an increasingly complex world. Further, I think they have the possibility of changing our thinking away from a “one size fits all” solution (e.g. designing menus around the “the 80-20 rule”) to one that is more customised to the user.

What do you think?

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