I Am Not Charles


Joel gives bad advice: details at 11:00

Posted in the Living Room by Joe on July 2, 2008
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Am I blind, or does Joel on Software not allow comments any more? (Or did it ever?) Well, I guess I’ll respond to his latest article on disabling unusable menu items right here, even though that means he’ll never see it.

Don’t do this… Instead, leave the menu item enabled. If there’s some reason you can’t complete the action, the menu item can display a message telling the user why.

That would be incredibly annoying – I’d be constantly clicking on items I expect to work and getting a popup saying, “Sorry.” In an app I use often, I use the menus mostly by feel, so I’m not going to notice that now there’s a message saying, “Disabled because the moon is in th’e fourth quarter and you haven’t paid your phone bill.” Or if I do it’ll be in the instant before my finger clicks the button, so now I’ll just have time to realize I screwed up before it pops up the Box of Aggravation.

A better thing to do would be to disable the option, so if I click on it nothing will happen instead of the app yelling at me, and have feedback on why it’s disabled.

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3 Responses to 'Joel gives bad advice: details at 11:00'

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  1. I have long advocated this. In the one WIMP interface I ever built from scratch (for a video game), disabled menu items were greyed out and clicking on them did nothing, but hovering the mouse over one would tell you why it was greyed out.

  2. Peter McCurdy said,

    I don’t think he’s ever had comments on his blog as such; there’s a Fog Creek discussion board around somewhere though, which probably has threads about his articles.

    As for my take, I think it’s an indictment of most of the last 25 years of UI design that when we hear “the menu item can display a message”, we think of modal dialog boxes. If Joel’s plan used a Firefox-style notification bar, then it wouldn’t be so massively irritating. That said, I don’t know whether it’d actually be annoying or not, and I’m not really the best person to judge either – for starters, I hardly ever use menu bars, and when I do, nothing much seems to be disabled anyway.

  3. Joe said,

    I didn’t mean to imply that the message Joel talks about is a popup. But what else would the menu item do if you click on it and the associated action can’t be performed? Accept your click but do nothing? That’s even worse! With a Firefox-style notification bar, you risk the user not noticing it just opened (I often click on links and find that apparently nothing happened, and it takes me several clicks before I notice that it’s opened the “blocked popup” notification.)

    I was picturing a still-active menu item with a short tag next to it (“DISABLED: No selection” or something), which pops open a more complete explanation if you ignore the tag and try to select it.


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