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Drop-down menus: Good, bad, or just plain ugly?

One of my favorite quotes about web design is this, from Jeffrey Zeldman:

When I see a drop-down menu, I know that a committee sat around a table, unwilling to think through the organization of the site’s material into a user-focused structure ?? or unwilling to accept the recommendation of an information architect who spent days making sense of the site’s offerings. A drop-down menu tells me there were too many decision makers, none of whom understood that the user’s needs were more important than their ego-driven desire to win front-page placement for their little piece of the content puzzle.

That quote always make me want to stand up and shout “Hallelujah!”. I hate drop-down, fly-out and other crazy menu schemes. I find them awkward, distracting, and and a sure sign of a design compromise.

However, lately I’ve been finding myself reconsidering my vow never to use them on our university web site. I am starting to think they are perfect for universities, precisely because of what Zeldman points out.

I get requests every week from some university constituent asking to have their link added to the home page. This puts me in the situation of constantly having to defend the navigation structure of the site, which actually does have a lot of thought behind it. It also puts me in the position of having to deny deans and vice presidents home page links to their pet projects.

Since I have the political power of an assistant dean’s pet goldfish, this is not a fun situation for me to be in. Sometimes folks take a denial well, and sometimes they go to the president and try to have him order me to make a change. This is not good for the ulcer.

What is the solution? A committee! I run these requests by a committee, and the committee makes the decision. This prevents me from having to take the full brunt of the retribution that comes down the line, and allows me to sometimes get a good night’s sleep. Do you see what I’m getting at? The navigation of university web site is almost necessarily determined by committee. This may make drop-down, fly-out navigation the ideal navigation scheme for a university site.

Things would be so much easier if I could just stick these requested links in some fly-out menu where no one but the requester will ever see it. It would make everyone happy, except maybe the users, but I’m not convinced that the users wouldn’t be happy as well.

I also frequently get design advice from the campus community, and it is often suggested that I implement drop-down menus. When I work on department sites, it’s often the first thing the clients ask for. People seem to love them around here. Just last week I was pointed to CSU Chico’s site by someone who thinks I need some schooling about how to organize the homepage.

And it seems that some well-known designers have come around to this conclusion as well. Silverpoint, a web design company that Shaun Inman is a part of, just launched a new site for Choate Rosemary Hall. The site is a drop-down, fly-out extravaganza. It is well-done and has made it onto some of those design award sites.

So I am asking myself, is it worth it to have these drop-down drag-out fly-out fights over the site’s navigation, or should I adopt the committee mentality and embrace what may be the perfect solution? What do you think?



goodwitch writes

Jul 23 at 01:52 AM #

So, I used to think the same thing…avoid drop downs and fly outs, but on our last site redesign (which was released in March 2002) we had so many links that needed “front page” real estate, we knew we had to consider drop downs and fly outs. 

I thought, hey, we can include it in the initial design phase, run it thru usability testing…and see how it fairs.  I really expected folks not to like them.

Surprise.  They universally loved the drop downs.  One thing they really loved was how the fly outs helped define the main links in our left nav.  The links on the fly outs are teasers, the best o’ the links you will find when you go to that category.

But don’t let drop downs lead you to political linking on your home page.  (I know, I know, easier said than done.)  We are VERY stingy with adding links to our home page…even in the drop downs.  I really think I can count the number of vanity links on one hand on our page (and yes, I only have 5 fingers).

P.S.  My employer site is and when you view source, don’t laugh too hard….we wrote it so verrrrrry long ago.  I’ve got my fingers crossed that we get to do some summer cleanup and at least get rid of the table layouts!



goodwitch writes

Jul 25 at 06:47 PM #

Additional thought I had this weekend…so, look up at the top of your browser…open your Browser “File” “Edit” or “View” menu. 

Hmmmm…why is it we are fine with drop downs from the Browser Application, but shy away from them within the page itself?



Andrea writes

Jul 25 at 08:37 PM #

goodwitch: True.  I think the difference is that we already know what to expect in the system or application menus.  I know that I’m always going to find “Save” under “File”.  With drop-down web menus, each one is different. 

I may be at a site I’ve never been to before, and I know nothing about their site architecture.  If so, the first thing I’m going to do is base my decision about where to click to get where I want to go based on what I can see on the screen.  If another menu pops up when I’m trying to click, it is jarring and annoying, and I have to re-evaluate my choice.  It is less efficient for me.

I think the reason why the folks inside the university love drop-downs is that they have time to learn them.  they interact with the site every day and get to know the interface like the back of their hand.  However, these are not the folks who are the most important audience for the site (at least for our U where we are making a huge push to recruit more students).  So, I am still undecided about them.



John Oxton writes

Jul 31 at 03:04 AM #

I am never sure about drop downs either but having done the schools thing, they do seem perfect for those big sites.

When I built, we were told no JavaScript but a brief foray into something like College Life > Curriculum summaries makes you wonder if drop downs might not have been a better answer (Hey, and maybe the site woulda got on a showcase site if I had! I know the sting of being ignored too ;-)) but on the other hand, maybe the IA was at fault—difficult to say.

On the same token when I built I let the design (not mine) take the lead and we ended up with drop downs overlaying Flash NOT GOOD and we suffered backwards compatibility problems as a result. Though rest assured the client knows the score and we have had no major problems with older browsers to date (fingers crossed)

So, my general conclusion is they are a tool like any other but think carefully both before using them and NOT using them… if that makes sense.



Andrea writes

Jul 31 at 11:44 PM #

So, my general conclusion is they are a tool like any other but think carefully both before using them and NOT using them… if that makes sense.

John:  Yes, that makes a lot of sense.  And it’s good advice to not let my own personal feelings about a technique cloud my judgment about how useful it may be. 

I am playing with Son of Suckerfish for a small project where the client requested drop-downs.  I thought this was a perfect opportunity to give it a fair shake and re-evaluate drop-downs, rather than convincing the client to try another solution like I usually do.

In general, I am overwhelmed with content and disparate audiences on the university site, and all sarcasm and bitching about politics aside, I am thinking drop-downs may be the way to go if I can convince them to let me redesign again anytime soon.



Rose writes

Oct 1 at 05:06 AM #

I just had to solve a horrible IE flicker problem with the suckerfish drop-down menu at work.  Turns out, NOTHING will make IE happy with JavaScript calling classes in lists that contain image backgrounds, except for a server-side solution that involves editing either HTTP-headers in IIS, or .htaccess for Apache. 

My conclusion?  Drop-down menus are not worth the headache!  I’ve gotten feedback from older university folks (prior to this job) about how they don’t like trying to figure out drop-down menus, and would rather have less menus flying about and more focus on the main content.  Most users prefer to see large images anyway, and drop-down menus often cover these up.  I think that they aren’t worth it.


Don Latarski writes

Jan 7 at 12:25 AM #

“I just had to solve a horrible IE flicker problem with the suckerfish drop-down menu at work.”

I encountered the same problem and found a really simple fix:
Tools—> Internet Options—> General—> Settings—> select ‘Automatically’


sandro writes

Apr 11 at 10:10 AM #

I generally shy away from drop-down menus as well but this article is helping me question my motives.
I think Stanford  did an excellent job of incorporating fly-out menus into their design. As a web savy user that generally hates using fly-outs I find the experience at stanford to be transparent.


Kim Siever writes

Aug 21 at 07:20 PM #

Last year, I removed drop down menus from our website (a specific faculty at a university), and we have been discussing as a university dropping the drop downs on the university’s site. Drop down menus breed infinite menu items and make things more difficult to find. We found that our user websites seem to be more focused in their traffic than ever before.

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