More Bloopers

Category:GUI Control

Title: Menus too long

Drop down menus are supposed to make it easy for users to choose one of the options. Sometimes however, drop-down menus are stuffed with hundreds or thousands of options, the most likely ones not at the top, forcing users to scroll through the menu to find their desired option.

MBUSA example of bad menuClick to enlargeFor example, at, the website for Mercedes Benz cars, the National Inventory Search page had a menu labeled "Earliest Model Year" that started with the year 7. To select the current year, users had to scroll through over 2000 years of history. Perhaps this finally answers the question: What would Jesus drive?

It’s bad enough when huge menus are ordered meaningfully -- e.g., alphabetically or numerically -- but sometimes menu-items are listed in no particular order, forcing users to hunt for their item as they scroll.


MBUSA example of bad menuClick to enlargeThe New Customer inquiry form on the website of Forrester Research asks potential customers to choose their topic of interest from a very long, unordered menu of topics.





MBUSA example of bad menuClick to enlargeSimilarly,, a textile industry website, has a Textile Dictionary page that lets users translate textile terms between languages. Users select a term from a menu in their own language, and the tool shows the term in three other European languages. Unfortunately, the menus list thousands of terms, in no useful order.


Avoiding the Blooper

When possible, avoid menus that are very long. If the menu is too long to fit on the screen, perhaps a menu is not the right way to present the setting.

Sometimes however -- as with menus of U.S. states or hours in a day -- long menus is the only presentation that makes sense. In such cases, list the items in an order that allows users to scroll quickly to the option they want.



Title: Scary error messages

Sometimes software engineers engage in hyperbole: when an error occurs, they program the software to notify users in apocalyptic terms.

WindowsMediaPlayer_ScaryMsg.gifClick to enlargeWindows Media player is guilty of this. Under certain -- unclear -- conditions, it displays an error message "Catastrophic Failure" Come on! We're talking about an application that plays music and videos. What's the worst that can happen? It can't continue playing a file? It loses its connection to a media source? Sorry, that isn't catastrophic.

MacOS_MisleadingMsgClick to enlargeAnother way to scare users unnecessarily is to write an error message so it misleadingly suggests that the worst of several problems exists. For example, when a user connects an external hard disk that has a corrupted directory, MacOS X declares ominously that the disk "is not readable" and provides a button to "Initialize" the disk. Most of the time when this message appears, the disk does not need to be reinitialized; the data on it is fine and there is only minor corruption of the directory. However, many users may hesitate to click this button. Eventually they learn that it doesn't really wipe the disk; it just brings up a tool for diagnosing and fixing a wide range of corrupted-disk problems.

Avoiding the Blooper

Well-designed, popular software is pleasant to use. It isn't scary.

Don't use scary, hyperbolic terms to describe error conditions, even serious ones. Catastrophes are events like hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes that destroy entire cities, or terrorist attacks that bring down buildings and kill thousands of people. Nothing that happens purely in a computer is "catastophic" -- not even a hard disk crash.

Especially don't scare users if it is unlikely that the worst case of a range of possibilities actually occurred. If an error message covers a range of possibilities, list them (or a sample of them) in descending order of likelihood, along with the recommended remedy for each problem.