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drop down menu usabilty failure
drop down menu usabilty failure

The other day I was conducting a review of a new web site and came across my favourite usability failure.

Drop Down menus suck!!

Not the whole menu of course just the bad habit of site builders who add functionality to the top level link.

Let me explain

When you create a drop down menu with a top level of Home, News, About, Events do you make those top level items selectable or are they just placeholders.

If they are selectable have you ever checked to see if people ever click on them. I bet you a very large percent of your site visitors don't and that they just go directly to the sub-menu items that are displayed when you hover over the top level item.

Why does this happen?

It's quite simple really, and once I explain you will be kicking yourself for never realising before.

Since the start of the computer graphical user interface (GUI) we have been accustomed to having a drop down menu at the top of the screen. You're probably looking at one right now that says File, Edit, View....

Do any of those links actually do anything?

No of course not, they exist purely as sign posts to the menu items inside. We don't click on them because that's how we have trained our brains to look at these items.

So why do you think it would be any different on your web site?

It's not, spend any time conducting usability studies of your web sites and you will see that your users will hover over the top menu item and then select an item of interest from the drop down list. The vast majority will simply ignore the top level because they don't expect it to do anything, that's what the GUI has taught us to do.

What can you do to fix this?

  1. Replace your top level menu items with separators or dummy links
  2. Ensure that the top level link is just another way to find content and not the only way. For example make it a "section list" if the sub-menu items are all "category lists"
  3. Ensure that you style your top level links to clearly mark them as selectable

User testing

We've all forgotten to do it, it's nothing to be ashamed of but it's never too late.

Take a handful of users who are not familiar with your web site and give them a few simple tasks to find some information on your web site. Record what they did to find the information (if they could), how long it took them and how many clicks it took.

Then with the information you have gathered don't forget to do something about it, you can always improve the usability of your web site

Find out more about usability testing and why it should be an essential part of the web site development process at


J o o m l a !

Brian Teeman

Brian Teeman

Who is Brian?

As a co-founder of Joomla! and OpenSourceMatters Inc I've never been known to be lacking an opinion or being too afraid to express it.

Despite what some people might think I'm a shy and modest man who doesn't like to blow his own trumpet or boast about achievements.

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