Home > Articles > Programming > User Interface (UI)

Bad UI of the Week: The Menu Bar

  • Print
  • + Share This
The location of the menu bar takes on something of a religious nature when Mac and Windows users come together. When OPENSTEP users are thrown into the mix (assuming that you can still find any), things get even more interesting. This week, David Chisnall examines the historically contentious topic of menu placement, and discusses the flaws and trade-offs of the approaches used by all common desktop environments.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

Bad UI of the Week: The Menu Bar

The location of the menu bar takes on something of a religious nature when Mac and Windows users come together. When OPENSTEP users are thrown into the mix (assuming that you can still find any), things get even more interesting.

The question of where the menu bar lives has a history as long as the GUI itself. The Xerox Alto didn’t have fixed-position menus at all. Menus were allowed to float around wherever they wanted.

This wasn’t the first appearance of a menu, however. Many text-mode applications had menus, typically at the bottom of the screen, accessed by function keys.

Mac OS and GEM were among the first to define a fixed position for the menu—at the top of the screen. This had two advantages. The first is that it was a constant space allocation. The original Mac had a 512 x 342 pixel display (tiny by modern standards), and GEM was designed to run on machines with similar capabilities. The second relates more directly to usability.

Microsoft Windows, and some UNIX desktops, went in a different direction. They, too, specified a position for the menu, but placed it relative to the window, not the screen.

In the case of the X Windowing System, this was partly a concession to network transparency and the fact that the system didn’t have a standard widget set (actually, it had several "standard" widget sets). It was possible to run X applications remotely, and placing the menu at the top of the screen would have meant that two windows would have needed to be exported, and some complex interaction would have been required by the display server.

The lack of a common widget set meant that X didn’t define how menus were created, and so a common menu bar would have required close cooperation between toolkits.

The second advantage of the single menu bar is more obvious in comparison with the per-window approach. Fitts’ Law is a well-known rule in UI design, which gives an indication of how difficult it is to hit a given target with a pointing device.

The law is usually expressed as a formula, but it basically states that the amount of time taken to hit a target is proportional to the (base-2) logarithm of the distance to the target divided by the size of the target along the line of motion.

What does that mean? The first part is obvious: It takes longer to hit a target that is farther away. The second part refers to stopping time. When you aim for a particular target, you will generally start slowing the mouse down as you approach it. If it’s very small, you might overshoot and have to come back a bit.

If you are trying to hit a single-pixel target on your screen, it takes about as long, no matter where the mouse starts; you get it close quickly and then have to move very slowly toward it or else you overshoot.

Fitts’ Law specifies a couple of empirical constants that are used for scaling. They depend on the user and pointing device, but some ballpark figures are available from various user studies. When testing UIs, I use an IBM Thinkpad with a trackpoint pointing device. When used by me, it gives very high values for these constants and so makes even small improvements immediately obvious.

How does this relate to menu position? There is a special case for objects that are arranged along the edge of the screen. There are a few possible behaviors when the mouse attempts to travel over the edge of the screen. It could wrap or bounce, for example, but most GUIs make it simply stop. This means that objects on the very edge of the screen have an effectively infinite target size along the direction of travel from anywhere other than another location on the same edge.

This is a slight simplification; if you don’t move the cursor so it is directly perpendicular to the edge of the screen, it can slide sideways. You could fudge this by making menus "catch" the mouse, so the only way of moving between them was to move off the bar and then back to it, but I don’t believe anyone does.

The result is that the top-mounted menu bar has effectively double the height of the window-mounted one, making it much easier to hit. Screen corners are even easier, but we generally only have four of them, so they can’t be used as well.

Obviously, this makes the screen-mounted menu superior, right? Well, not quite. The problem comes from the fact that screens these days are quite a bit bigger than they used to be. This means that the distance to the menu also starts to play a significant part in the calculation of the time.

If you are working in a smallish window on a big screen, then the top of the window is easier to hit than the top of the screen (unless the window is close to the top of the screen). If you run applications maximized, you get the worst of both worlds. Exactly which is better depends on how you use the system.

A couple of decades ago NeXT realized that this was a problem, and came up with a very simple solution. Its menu "bar" was a vertical column, not attached to anything. Submenus could be torn off and placed wherever the user wanted as free-floating palettes of options.

By default, the menu lived at the top-left corner of the screen. This wasn’t ideal, and so they created a shortcut. Right-clicking would make the menu appear under the cursor. This had another nice effect familiar to RiscOS users; that common menu actions became subconscious mouse gestures.

There are a number of approaches to displaying the menu bar, and none of them are ideal in all situations. The screen-attached menu doesn’t scale to large screens. The per-window menu is difficult to hit in a lot of uses. The floating menu encourages clutter, and the mouse-invoked menu is difficult for touch-screen users and provides no visual clue to its existence for others.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020