Why the humble main menu is important to UX

A main menu is not very interesting to look at artistically-speaking, indeed it probably shouldn’t be. It is, however, a really useful set of clues for a user as to the content contained behind it.

The top-level menu labels should appear to be a set and:

  • be descriptive of all the contents it leads to (providing good “information scent”).
  • be unambiguous
  • clearly different to the others in the same menu
  • of the same level of granularity as the other menu labels

You might have heard of the rule of 7+/- 2. A lot of people cast aspersions about that number, but I think it’s still reasonably stable in terms of a rule of thumb for the recommended number of menu items.
Basically, if you have got a menu that has more than 7 menu items, it shouldn’t grow much greater than 9, because it gets too much to read through, and if it’s a lot smaller than 5, perhaps the menu is not needed or is too deep and so not well-organised.
If you have just two items, you can use something like tabs or a different UI element, depending on what your content is.
If you’re a large store and you have two categories, then 7+/-2 is perhaps not going to be such a useful ballpark figure for you to think about in regards to types of item.

Ideally, all of the top menu labels will have roughly the same number of options taking the user deeper. For example, they could all have about seven suboptions, but if one of them had three, and two of them had fifteen, it would not be well-balanced.
However, each case is different.

In summary, the top-level menu is a quick overview for a user. It’s not very snazzy, but it is really important to have a good structure and one that communicates what your site is about.

For a little more on this topic and to hear about card sorting, have a listen to my latest podcast episode.


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