Thursday, September 02, 2010

Menu Blind Spot

I'd write this one off to stupid user (moi) except that I saw it a lot when I was a usability tester. I wanted to change presentation colors in my email client. I was pretty sure I did that in Tools > Preferences. It is important to note that my opening assumption, I repeat, was that I would find it under Tools > Preferences. I clicked on Tools.

I couldn't find Preferences.

After some frustrated head scratching wondering where they would have put it, I saw it.

I would see the same phenomenon in usability tests with drop down menus where the top choice was preselected (reverse video). Humans process a list like this:

Top item set off typographically in some way = column title and is not a choice; therefore ignore.

The reversed video selection became invisible as users would scan the not-highlighted choices under it. Because Preferences is a single entry and is underlined, I think I processed it the same way.

These mental shortcuts usually make us more efficient--but sometimes they get in our way. As designers, try to avoid making the top choice different in any way.


Techquestioner said...

I've been caught by this blind spot, too. It's been a default Windows drop-down menu list characteristic for a long time and multiple releases. Something has to be selected/ highlighted, and until the user makes a selection, the top item is "IT". Compounding the problem, the color schemes used for a lot of products tend to obscure the text on the selected/ highlighted item. I prefer a pale color over normal text for such selections, rather than the reverse colors usually used, because the user is more likely to see the item as part of the list.

Rhonda said...

I also get caught with this blind spot, and like you, didn't see 'Preferences' until a second or third look at the very short list in your screen capture. My online TV guide for our cable service is the same -- I'll move from one 'page' to the next and not see the first item as it's highlighted in reverse and I assume it's a column header.

Thanks for reminding us of this, Mike. I'd never really thought about it before, but because you've documented the issue, I realise that it's a failing in many lists. I don't know what the answer is though, especially for lists like an online TV guide where *something* has to be selected.