“Contextual” everything: a UI nightmare

It began as I was working in Moodle 2.0 for the first time. Instead of having a few menus of commands where I was accustomed to them, Moodle 2 makes everything “contextual”. In other words, it depends on what screen you’re on which menu you get. So you have to go to a student’s profile, for example, to get a separate menu that lets you regulate their account (instead of the choices being just links on that page). Where before I could click the Edit icon on the main page to edit a quiz, now I am supposed to go to the quiz and use the contextual menu (cleverly hidden on the side) to get to Edit Quiz.

Twitter’s newer interface does the same thing. I have to go to my profile image at the top of the page to get a contextual menu so I can find my Direct Messages and Lists, a menu that doesn’t appear elsewhere. WordPress’s administrative interface now also has little popout menus on the side, and contextual help menus rather than general help menus (Mac OS help tries to do this too, but isn’t very good at it). Programs like Prezi, and many graphics programs, do contextual menus graphically, where you must click on an object to bring up a particular menu.

I’ll sound like an old-timer as I explain how difficult it used to be, before CSS, to create a static menu on each page. The idea was that wherever you were in a website, you could find your way to wherever you want to go, because the menu on the page was always the same. We all became very accustomed to the drop-down menus at the top of Microsoft Word and other programs – everything under File was always the same. This was important for creating deep rather than broad websites.

Contextual menus, by definition, are not the same. They may be called the same thing (“Settings” or “File”) but what’s underneath depends on what page or part of the website you’re on. Using them means you must have a certain cognitive awareness of where you are in the website, and they add more clicks in the interest of clearing screen “clutter”.

It’s kind of like the difference between leaving everything spread out on your desk so you can see it (the large static menus on every page) or putting everything in file folders and drawers, where you have to take the extra steps of opening a drawer and finding a file to get to what you want (contextual menus).

I suspect the popularity and pervasiveness of contextual menus is partly the result of Google’s supposedly clean interface (which is actually going the other way with the new black menu bar at the top) and computer games. Computer games are all contextual – you have to get to this particular location to be able to do this particular thing.

I am not a gamer, and my brain automates itself in web space by using extensive menus, menus that I learn through usage and don’t have to consciously recall. Users who think and remember better than I do use keyboard shortcuts and move even faster around a web space. Contextual menus slow things down, and pull from the cognitive energy I need to do whatever it is I’m trying to do.

As a result the word “contextual” is now a misnomer. The entire thing I’m working on is my context, not the page or section. So as with the many “features” that control my workflow, I’m not happy about this.

3 thoughts on ““Contextual” everything: a UI nightmare

  1. I completely agree Lisa. I have been putting in hour upon hour this summer to make my course flow better in the new Moodle format. It feels, sadly, a bit Blackboard like to me. I guess I’ll get used to it but I fear I may have some lost and frustrated students. I’m creating some “how to get around” videos for my students this that are much more detailed than in previous terms. My biggest gripe at the instructor level is inability to edit a lesson, or lecture while I am in it. I miss the hand with the pen option at that level of the course.

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