Context-Sensitive Menus

Isn’t it fun when you mention a problem and the solution is already in the works? Last week, that was my mention of manuals and digital distribution, where the manuals are there, just not immediately obvious when you don’t care enough to look very hard. This week, it is my next bit from The Design of Everyday Things, preempted by Guild Wars 2.

One of the difficulties in making intuitive interfaces is that some things require complexity. It is not always possible to make something powerful, flexible, and simple. If you need 200 options, you have problems whether you have 200 buttons or 10 buttons with a combination of toggles or whatever. There is no simple way to present 200 options.

One solution is to hide some options. That is why most “options” menus have an “advanced options” menu, although that is rarely of help to me because the option I want to change is usually somewhere under “advanced” (as are many cool toys that you never knew you wanted). One non-computer example cited did that with a flip panel — less common options were hidden under a plate so you did not see all the buttons at once. Yes, putting a fig leaf over half the buttons can potentially improve how intuitive the interface is.

But what would be even better would be if the options auto-updated according to your needs. My phone at work does this, and I tend to demand more of my games than my phone. This needs to happen in a structured fashion, so that you are not chasing commands or having buttons change on you in the time it takes for you to push them, but we already have some good examples, dating back to adventure games that automatically do the right thing when you click or use something. (This can be done badly, if the multi-use button does things unexpectedly.)

But as I suggested in the opening, Guild Wars 2 is already doing this. Change weapons, and your power bar updates. Go into Death Shroud, and your power bar updates. Summon a pet, and your power bar updates. I was so used to needing several power bars for all my abilities that it never struck me to want my 0 key to update from “summon bear” to “command bear to attack.” Is it potentially easy mode if, when you are set on fire, a big button pops up offering to let you use that water you picked up? Maybe, but you would think that would be an immediately available option for your character, because in real life you do not need to rewire your brain to lunge for water. Do I have any evidence that Guild Wars 2 is going to do this well? No, but I endorse the idea, even if it takes a few iterations to make it work as intended.

: Zubon

17 thoughts on “Context-Sensitive Menus”

  1. No.

    I’d prefer not to have DPS spell come up when I want a stun (or have the two switch places). Or have bash be alt+2 with one shield, but alt+3 on another. Or in a word processor have making a letter sometimes (but not always) show up before spellcheck as my usage habits vary. Or (classic example) have varying options in the Windows start menu be hidden by default because I didn’t use them recently enough.

    It’s been a while since I read The Design of Everyday things or Turn Signals are the facial expressions of cars, but does the author rail against inconsistency (though more in deviating from pre-existing layouts)?

    1. Good point, but what you just described would be bad design, not what the author was talking about. To make a useful context-sensitive interface takes a lot of iteration and testing, so that what you described does not happen.

      However, it might take a few games that do this horrible to finally get one that does it right.

  2. My most common complaint when it comes to human interfaces is that “Discovery” is over-emphasized and repeated-usage is neglected. It’s as if we’re always treated as newbs and children, or forgetful doddards.

    I recall it’s mentioned in the Xerox Star GUI documentation somewhere, the distinction between Discovery and “Intuition”. My take is something like this:

    – Discovery is always fresh. Useful for new devices and new users. It adds a shine that’s appreciated more than used.

    – Intuition can build on a foundation of knowledge and behaviour. Good for power users and new users alike. Gamers = power users IMHO.

    Context-menus are a great example of Intuition at work. Once you’ve jumped through whatever manual, training exercise or explanation that gets you to grok the concept, context-menus become “intuitive” from that point on. This is why I love multi-button mice and menu buttons for touchscreens.

    Of course, complexity is the enemy of memory. Context-menus that go too deep will quickly lose their meaning.

    Context-menus that constantly change however, is taking Discovery to its most jarring potential. I’d say for this to work, there would have to be a limited set of alternative menus. Thankfully, I think the Guild Wars 2 team understands the limitations of Discovery.

    I’d say I’d endorse the correct application of this idea much more than the idea itself.

  3. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but man I wish I had this in LOTRO for my captain. I rarely, rarely use the rez button, so when I group up and someone dies in-combat it takes me a second or two to hunt for that small ass rez icon. Of course by then my window of rez opportunity is gone. It’s be nice if that rez menu was hidden until needed, and then it could pop up somewhere more pertinent than my quagmire of skill icons.

  4. I’ve always thought the “Wall of Buttons” in many MMOs was just plain bad design.

    Not only is it overwhelming and confusing in the late game, when precision and efficiency is most critical, but it’s completely unrealistic. As any boxer or trained fighter will attest, there are only a few actions that are appropriate at any given time during a fight. You don’t throw a roundhouse at just any time…you wait until it is appropriate and most effective.

    The assumption most MMOs seem to make is that the freedom to throw out any skill or technique at any time somehow empowers the player, and allows for “strategy” of some sort. There is also the chance that the player will use something inappropriate, lending combat some “reality” (I guess…?). While it does tend to separate the skilled players a little, it’s not for better strategy or quick thinking that these players are elevated…it’s for rote memorization and muscle memory. Last I checked, this wasn’t exactly “fun”. What it only really leads to is bad, cluttered UI design and a slew of mods/addons that essentially take the game out of the player’s hands (e.g. WoW). Again, not exactly “fun”.

    What the devs seem to neglect is that the players are meant to be highly trained, hardened combatants. After killing literally thousands of Orcs, my Burglar should damn well know how an Orc fights, and what is best used in any given situation.

    I don’t think combat needs to be twitch-based, but, yes, contextual menus would be a great addition. My hopeis that GW2 implements it so well that other games have no choice but to follow suit.

  5. Well you have to keep in mind that we’re still largely going on the fumes of the primitive UI design that’s been going on forever (I’m not gonna say the ‘D’ word). Bars, buttons, minimap somewhere up there, player/target portrait and so on.

    I don’t know if there aren’t any radically new types of UI ideas out there. My guess is that there are. I think we don’t see them because nobody wants to risk having the new game tank miserably because people can’t get used to the awesome new generation of UI.

        1. Hmmm, it seems to me that here and on every other MMO/Gaming blog the bloggers and commenters are all asking for something new and different from what we already have. Yet when something new is suggested or tried, all anyone does is complain that it will never work, because ‘people’ won’t/can’t learn something new. If that were true, we’d all still be playing Pong.

          Whenever someone makes the statement ‘people are X’, they’re really saying ‘people other than me are X’, where X is of course lazy, stupid, unwilling, unable, or whatever. It’s really a statement of smug superiority.

          1. But suggested != tried.

            Show me an implementation of a radically new UI design idea (not a minute change here and there, or a single function applied somewhere). Not ten guys talking about it like we’re doing here. Show me a published game that has successfully implemented something like this (and yes, our values for “successfully” might be different)

            Where are these implementations?

  6. From what I’ve seen in the demos, this seems to be working fairly well at the moment. The “F” command differs based on whatever you are interacting with, which is a case against macros if I’ve ever seen one. Also, with the skillbar changing based on the skills you use (e.g., minion summon skill becomes minion ‘splodey skill once you’ve summoned the minions) it cuts out the annoyance of having an empty skill on the bar that is doing nothing but recharging.

    We get options and we get them simplified. This will take getting used to just like the dynamic event system because, frankly, it’s less familiar to most MMOers. It has potential to be confusing and frustrating when it doesn’t react they way you want it to or as quickly as you want it to, but for now, it looks promising. As long as it can keep up with player choices and react to button mashing appropriately, I don’t see how it will be that big a problem.

  7. Office 2007 had context sensitive menus.

    At first I hated the new menu-bar design. Why did they change something people were used to? But then, very soon after, I started noticing the big improvements. The last “tab” usally showed specific icons and options depending on what type of data you were editing in your document.

    Is it an image? Then you’ll get image options. Is it a table? Then you’ll get cell info, table options, border settings…

    So easy. Before you had many items and drop downs and you couldn’t fit all icons on your screen… now they pop up whenever you need it.

    To put this into the world of games…
    I know how some of my friends (the MMO hater type) just laugh at the amount of icons in the WoW interface while they only use 5 skills of them…

    I first noticed improvements on this with how combo skills work. With AoC for example your next combo skills you could choose from popped up in the middle of your screen. And to me GW2 is now the first MMO where I see this choice for context-sensitive menu’s being so obvious. It works really well I think for the game.

    Yes it simplifies the game for you, and that’s a good thing. I don’t want to play versus the interface of the game…, I want to play the game and have fun.

  8. Incidentally, 3DS Max changes hotkeys when you’re in different modes. When you’re editing surface UVs, for instance, CTRL-S changes from “save file” to “toggle snap”. ALT-W changes from “toggle between four cameras to one” to “weld verts” if you’re working with meshes and happen to have vertices selected.

    I hate that sort of design. Absolutely, positively detest it. It guts the usability of the $3000 program.

    I don’t mind when some extra icons shuffle around like the GW2 equipment example, but when core functions of navigation and function change with context, it breaks usability.

    1. …in game terms, imagine that you’re used to WASD navigation, but suddenly, say in Death Shroud mode, W becomes the hotkey for “Summon Wisp” or something, and there is *no* keyboard key to move forward.

      Bad, terrible, awful design.

      1. There’s a big difference between “change global meaning” and “make relevant”.

        “Change global meaning” is switching from Eve to GW and going from left-mouse-drag to rotate to right-mouse-drag to rotate (or Eve yoking the scroll wheel backwards to ever other app). That’s annoying. And doubly so when it’s in a single app.

        But some stuff I do is modal. I play(ed) a rogue/wiz in DDO. When I’m in scouting/traps mode, I have a certain set of items equipped and skills ready. When I’m in fire support mode, it’s a completely different set. And there’s quite a bit of manual toolbar management to support this. That toolbar management isn’t really necessary – the game could figure out what I’m currently doing and just present those options. Instead of messing me up if my state and active toolbar didn’t match.

        One obvious feature here is “skill chains”. There are some GW1 skills where X is designed to chain to Y and then to Z. That can be represented as three skills. Or it can be combined into a single skill that updates. This latter option allows the UI (and thus the player) to do more with less.

        Or consider GW1 interrupts. I sometimes tried to carry an interrupt or two on my bar, but for the most part it was “target is doing something I want to interrupt – find an available interrupt – find keystroke or move mouse to trigger it (takes time because I don’t fire it frequently) – discover it’s queued after my current skill – too late”. Consider the alternative where your active target starts using a skill, and a single button pops up that you can click to fire your “first” appropriate interrupt. This condenses a long, complex, and hard to master decision chain to a single decision and action: do I want to interrupt this ability or not? That might sound like “easy mode”, but I disagree. The interesting gameplay decision is whether to interrupt – the rest is just manual busy-work that makes it awkward for not-highly-practiced players to implement that decision in a timely manner.

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