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Should you use drop down menus in web design?

Published on July 13, 2012
Tags: Web Design London

Opinion of both web users and web designers is somewhat split on this issue – should you use drop down menus in your web design? One argument says that they’re awkward to use, confusing and get in the way. Another argument says that they can be a useful navigation tool and can help to simplify web layouts that could otherwise be quite complicated.
Whichever side of the argument you stand on, it’s hard to deny that drop down menus are a popular fixture of web design. There are definitely some situations where they should be avoided or at least handled very carefully – such as in mobile or tablet designs, where they don’t work in the same way as they do on desktops – but they can be a useful feature of websites.
There are plenty of examples of useful drop down menus. For example, if a website features lots of different categories but they don’t all merit a position in the ‘top spot’ on the main menu of the site, secondary menus can be a good option. They can also be useful for websites looking to divide things into categories – ecommerce sites arranging categories of products, for instance. They can also be useful for blogs and other sites where things are arranged by topic.
So there are lots of ways web designers can utilise these menus and, as mentioned above, they can help to clean up the navigation of a website that is required to hold lots of information. After all, getting around a website should be as easy as possible for the user; putting everything into clearly defined menus makes sense in a lot of cases. It can also help to avoid users having to scroll down through lots of information to find what they’re looking for, effectively working to compact the site to make it cleaner and simpler.
However, there are some fairly obvious things to consider whenever you are using drop down menus in web design. The issue of whether to activate the menus through clicking or hovering the mouse pointer over them is probably one of the most significant things to think about. On the one hand, hovering over the menu to activate the drop down feature makes things very simple for the user. The problem occurs when the menu then disappears if they accidentally move the pointer away from it, leading to them having to start over again.
For this reason, it is often recommended to make the menus of a significant size so that this is less of an issue. Another solution is to set up the website so that if a user strays from a hover menu, they have to click elsewhere on the screen to get rid of it. By contrast, if the menu is activated by clicking on a particular tab, it can be easier for users to then select the category that they are looking for. This option can also be more effective for mobile web design, not least because mobile devices tend not to respond to a hovering pointer.
There is also the issue of how many sub-menus are linked to the main drop down menu. If there are too many on there, it’s simply reintroducing problems that the menu was originally supposed to solve, so keeping it to a single drop down menu – perhaps with one sub-menu if absolutely necessary – is often a good idea.
Also, don’t forget that any menus that are included need to be in keeping with the design of the site. They can offer an interesting design opportunity, but ideally they need to be clean and easy to read as well as easy to use. Clear, concise category names in a clear font are generally a good way to go. The menu also needs to react straight away to action from a user; they shouldn’t be left waiting and wondering whether they actually clicked on the menu if it fails to load in good time.
Overall, drop down menus can be an interesting feature of web design, and they can help to organise sites more effectively. However, just as with any other design aspect, they need to be carefully planned and integrated into the site to ensure the user experience is as good as it is expected to be.

By Chelsey Evans

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