Invention: Butterfly Menu – A Multi Paned Contextual Menu Concept

Take a look at this monstrosity I created in 2008 just for fun. I thought separating and color coding menu actions was a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the reality is that at first glance the average user would soil themselves after seeing such a menu pop up after right clicking. Lets go through the reasons of why I thought this would work, and why in reality it might not.

My reason for creating this,is that over the years as you install more useful software, more and more actions are added to your context menu (when you right click) until it becomes so full of actions that you have a hard time using it. The butterfly menu was meant to organize and color code similar actions so that once you knew where they were, your eyes could quickly find them the next time.

– Blue pane is always for navigation, used for web surfing and undoing / redoing.
– Green pane is always for property, viewing, and sorting.
– Red pane is always for dangerous actions like moving, deleting, and renaming. Actions that seriously alter a file’s properties.
– Yellow pane is for all other actions.

Sounds good in theory right? Unfortunately, the average user would never appreciate this kind of menu because to them, it only complicates something that used to be easy. And they would be absolutely correct. Realistically only the most extreme power user would be able to take advantage of the butterfly menu, and even then…

The Few Pros and  Many Cons
No matter what operating system you’re using, depending on what you right click on, the contextual menu is always changing, hence the name “contextual”. So actions are constantly appearing and disappearing, meaning your eyes need to skim over the whole menu each time it changes so you know where to click. However, scanning over the butterfly menu is difficult because there’s 4 panes instead of 1. Whatever amount of time it was suppose to save you, it just took back. A lot of times when people use the “right click” menu it’s because they are looking to see what options are available to them, not trying to find an option they know already exists. Power users know what they want, but they’re a small minority of computer users.

The butterfly menu might shine when it’s used for complex software that has a massive amount of mostly consistent contextual menu actions. The most used actions would be placed into their own smaller panes and the rest of the actions in one long pane that’s easy to skim over. Users would memorize the location of actions easier and click on them faster. Something like Microsoft Office Visio or EclipseUML (see below) could benefit from the butterfly menu but that’s just a theory, you’d have to do some serious usability tests and even then… Honestly, as daunting as it looks, I’d rather scan my eyes down a one column menu like the one below instead of having to look all over the butterfly menu for the actions I need.

Lessons Learned
Categorizing information by separating it does not always make it easier to find or get to. People can scan over a vertical ribbon of information faster than they can scan over separated information or information placed in a horizontal or block/checkerboard manner. The butterfly menu looks interesting but other than that I highly doubt anyone would want to include it in their UI. Then again, who knows? Maybe somewhere out there, there’s a Microsoft Office power user who would love a multi-paned context menu. Especially one that they could customize according to their needs, something I didn’t show in these quick mockups.