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Auto-Hiding Menu Items and Usability

This feature was added in, I believe, Office 2000, and has since invaded virtually all Microsoft products, including the Start menu. I'm curious what the general consensus on the usability of this feature - is it beneficial, or UI programmers gone awry.

Dennis Forbes
Wednesday, December 10, 2003


I always disable it as soon as I install Windows or an Office products.

Almost Anonymous
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Worst feature since mr clippy.  Smart software is bad software.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I also hate it in Office (and disable it.)  However, I wonder whether the feature helpful for "average" users (instead of power users.)  It might help by simplifying the choices in the menus.  (Given Microsoft's penchant for extensive usability testing, I doubt that Microsoft implemented it cavalierly.)  I think the bigger problem is that the feature creep in Office has caused the number of menu items to bloat, and the auto-hide menus are a crude solution.

How is this similar to the Windows XP start menu, however?  If you're referring to the list of frequently-used applications, I find that feature to be extremely useful.

Robert Jacobson
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

It is quite bad. I think it reduces the possibilities of learning about the available functions in an application. In addition, people that are not comfortable with computers also panic because some of their programs just disappeared.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

For the system tray icons in Windows XP, it works.  But that's only because the System Tray is a "tragedy of the commons" situation where too many apps that shouldn't put something in the system tray. 

WhyTF would I want a permanent QuickTime icon in my tray for <diety>'s sake?  Real?  You gotta be kidding.  The worst offenders are the ones that have  systray icon *and* show up on the taskbar.

Auto-Hiding is a hack to try and make up for deficiencies elsewhere.  For example, the auto-hiding of menu entries is a hack trying to cover up the fact that the menu is not organized properly.  "The UI guys say we have to have everything no more than 2 levels deep, so we'll just stick EVERYTHING in the first level and auto-hide the ones that aren't used."

Auto-hiding must be a nightmare for tech support.

I believe XP turned off the auto-hide in the start menu by default.  Now if we can only get them to turn off "Hide extensions of know filetypes" by default...

Richard P
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

It's a nice idea in-theory.  Unfortunately it doesn't work to well in the real world, especially for non-secretary types.

The algorithm that Office uses to hide things is really picky.  If you don't use an option for 2 days, it's gone.  Just because I don't use a feature every day doesn't mean I want it gone.  Using an option once or twice doesn't mean I've used it enough to appear in the list.  I have to use that feature constantly, or it'll get rid of it for me.

For people who use the same 5 Word features over and over again, it can be nice to reduce clutter.  For people like me, who don't know where everything is offhand, and like to poke around at the different options, it's a pain in the ass.

Myron A. Semack
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

"Personalized" menus are a real pain for me.

I tend to find items in menus not only by their name, but also by their location - what are they next to?

If the auto-hide menu option is on, that keeps changing on me, and I spend MORE time looking through fewer menu items.

Chris Tavares
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I have a keyboard with "Multimedia" keys on it -- stuff like Email, Messenger, etc.

When I boot, I hit the hot-keys on my keyboard.  What is funny is that if you look at the menus the hot-keyed items are the ones hidden but all the others are shown!

So if I go into the “Office” subdir I made all the office suite is shown but Outlook (my mail client) is hidden because I access it from the keyboard interface!  Same with AIM, etc.

I really would like a right-click menu option to 'force hide' a directory or icon.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I deal alot with people who are not very familiary with how computers work, and this feature *always* makes things more complicated. As Joel puts it "users don't read" -- period. This includes menu items. What they do is learn how far down from the top of the screen they need to click. When items aren't there, it is just one more instruction they need to keep in mind (one more thing to think about) -- "I need to click the double-arrow at the bottom of the menu and then click the item I want." And even when the feature works "properly" (meaning that it hides items that are not used and shows items that are used), it doesn't help at all -- because they are not reading every item anyway -- so it's not like they're saving time by having the unwanted items hidden from view -- because they are still just moving down to the spot they need to click on regardless of the words that are there.
Finally, something we can all agree on!

Jordan Lev
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I posted this shortly after discovering, yet again, that the start menu in XP had hidden the one item in a program group that I actually use (frequently). This bug has manifested itself on Windows 2000, and now XP. Time to disable that functionality. In the office suite, and now dev studio, what I generally find is that before I've gone through the effort of disabling the "feature", I go into the menus searching in vain for that item that was there, finally realizing that it's hidden and unhide it -- in essence it has been a huge productivity waste for me.

As a sidenote, on both my home (XP) and work (2000) machines I have encountered the most perplexing issue - several keys for a particular application will remap randomly, so ? is an accented e, for instance. I've checked my regional settings and they're fine, as is my input locale. Of course the first time I quickly scanned for trojans (there are none), and when it happened on my work machine as well I knew something was up -- that machine is heavily locked down. Anyone else encountering this? The issue is app specific, and is "solved" by restarting the app.

Dennis Forbes
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

You mean this idiotic feature can be disabled?  I am going to do some searching through the control panel on the office computer tomorrow morning.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Windows XP doesn't hide program items by default does it? You have to switch to the classic Start menu.

John Topley (
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Imagine the tranquility of a beautiful shoreline, each moment's wave washing up onto the beach sculpting the sand into a new work of art.

Now image your office menu's working like that.

Gavin van Lelyveld
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Of course, when I say "image" I do mean "imagine".

-- Always proofread your document to any mistakes.

Gavin van Lelyveld
Thursday, December 11, 2003

I like the hiding in the Windows Start menu I have to confess. Generally I use the same four or five pieces of s/ware every day and they are always visble and I have a short menu structure to navigate to get at them.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

>What they do is learn how far down from the top of the screen they need to click.

I generally memorize this is well, which means that whenever XP randomly reshuffles the menu I open the wrong application before I realize I have to re-learn the muscle memory.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

I like XP's start menu, and the show recently used programs is great.

I my opinion the system tray should only show things that run in the background. Real Time and Quick Time shouldn't be there or anywhere else.

Autohiding in Office is a feature I have never yet decided whether I like or not. Same goes for autohiding programs in W2000. I think on balance I would prefer to do without it in Office.

One thing nobody has mentioned is autohiding the taskbar. I used to love it, but it becomes much less necessary as your resolution increases from 640x480 to 1450x1050.

Remember things you love, other people hate and vice-versa. And things you thought you hated you find you love, as I have found out with single click on the desktop or the recent documents menu.

And finally, it is beyond doubt that MS got it absolutely RIGHT when it decided that file extensions should be hidden by default. Those that know enough to make use of the information can change the default setting. Those that don't are going to run into serious problems when they rename their docs and get rid of the file extension. I get lots of resumes in the mail because of my job. You would be surprised at the number of times I have to guess what the file extension is.

Stephen Jones
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Absolutely positively hate the auto hide and the start menu auto hide.  Hate the fact that programs can add themselves to the systray without my permission.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

"And finally, it is beyond doubt that MS got it absolutely RIGHT when it decided that file extensions should be hidden by default."

I wholeheartedly disagree!  Even the most newbie users know that .doc file is word document and a .xls file is excel file.  And applications are finally starting to use more than 3 letters in the file extensions.  It's an important piece of information, especially now because of the Internet.

"Those that don't are going to run into serious problems when they rename their docs and get rid of the file extension."

Have you actually tried renaming a document and changing the extension?  You get a nice warning from Windows.  And nearly all applications are very smart at handling file extensions in save dialogs.

Almost Anonymous
Thursday, December 11, 2003

I hate to buck the trend (especially given the sorrow it will cause the poster who exclaimed, "finally, something we can all agree on!") ...

I actually like this Office feature. I haven't experienced the problems others have in seeing the menu items they use disappear if not used for a couple of days. Because I know (or think I know) what Word can do, I never get confused when the option I need is not visible. And if I do need to search for something, I can always expand the menu. Bottom line is I find it easier to use a more spare menu that includes the options I use frequently.

I feel the same about the Start menu; since the XP-style Start menu doesn't support auto-hide, I typically select the "Classic" (puh-lease) presentation.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

--" Even the most newbie users know that .doc file is word document and a .xls file is excel file"----

Come on! Get real! I know intermediate to advanced users who wonder why you can't open an .xls file from Word.

All they know is the icon, if that.

--"You get a nice warning from Windows."

And you think the average user understands the gobbledygook he gets with that warning. For crying out loud, he probably doesn't know what a file is, let alone a file extension. And so he will rename files but forget about putting any extension on them. I know because I get them by email all the time.

Stephen Jones
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Auto-hide is one of those microsoft innovations which look good in those feature blurbs but are problematic in real use.

I would have preferred that ferquently used menu items are either moved to the top or perhaps moved to another single top level menu.

If nothing Microsoft should have put a shortcut like right clicking on a top level menu shows all the items without hiding if one wanted to get to all the menu items it would be easy to do with a single click or atleast figure out that if the user has dropped a menu and waiting it is probably because they are trying to figure out where the hell the menu item they want has gone -- and show the rest of the menu

Code Monkey
Thursday, December 11, 2003

"And you think the average user understands the gobbledygook he gets with that warning."

Warning: If you change the file extension, the file may become usable.  Are you sure you want to change it?

Doesn't sound that gobbledygook to me!

Almost Anonymous
Friday, December 12, 2003

Not to you, but to a person who doesn't know what a file is, let alone a file extension, it certainly is. And if the guy does pay attention to it it will mean he will never/ever rename a file.

Stephen Jones
Friday, December 12, 2003

'Warning: If you change the file extension, the file may become usable.  Are you sure you want to change it?'

...may become usable...

LMAO - god forbid

Friday, December 12, 2003

"Not to you, but to a person who doesn't know what a file is, let alone a file extension, it certainly is."

Don't know what a file is?
How about what an application is?
How about what the power button does?

All you're saying is some people shouldn't be using computers...  you can only dumb-down something so much before it becomes completely useless.

Maybe you are right.  File extensions are too complicated of a concept.  As you said, even files are a complicated concept; we should get of those entirely.  I know people are entirely confused by windows and those minimize/maximize buttons -- ditch them too. 

People seem ok with the web browser...  so lets just build computers with only one window, no files, and a web browser.

Almost Anonymous
Friday, December 12, 2003

Macintosh used to get by without file extensions. I guarantee you that the narrow part of the file system/OS affected by file associations is easier for people to learn in an environment without extensions.

Having said that, is Macintosh now gravitating a tighter coupling between file extensions and file associations? I thought I read that somewhere. If so, it feels like a step backward in usability.

Friday, December 12, 2003

"Having said that, is Macintosh now gravitating a tighter coupling between file extensions and file associations?"

They are.  The problem they have is that extensions are common element of meta data in all other platforms.  If I send a JPEG file to a Windows user from a Mac then it better have the .jpg extension or he won't be able to open it.  And if I receive a JPEG file from a Windows user my Mac somehow needs to create the associated meta data so that I can open it.

Being a good internet citizen means sending and understanding file extensions.  It also means that most operating systems now also associate file extensions with MIME content types -- Windows didn't do this in '95 but it does now.

Almost Anonymous
Friday, December 12, 2003

Dear Almost Anonymous,
                                      Plenty of people don't know what an ohm is but they can still turn on the electric light. And people who know nothing about calories or metabolisms can still eat a hamburger.

                                        As for the power button, you'd be amazed at the number of people who turn off the switch on the monitor when they've finished with the computer.

                                      Just because you have a certain amount of arcane technical knowledge, doesn't mean that the rest of the world has to.

Stephen Jones
Friday, December 12, 2003

----"Being a good internet citizen means sending and understanding file extensions."----

Rubbish. It's the job of the software companies to ensure capability, but the internet user has no more need to know the innards than the airtraveller has to know about the turbulence pattern of jet engines, or a chef to know the electro-mechanical theory behind the motor on his mixer.

Stephen Jones
Friday, December 12, 2003

I think you're missing the point!  I don't need to know what an ohm is to turn on a light.  And I don't need to know what a mhz is to operate a computer. 

I've heard this debate over and over before.  If you think it's possible to dumb computers down to the point where they are as easy to use a light switch then more power to ya.  However, I suspect the computer would then only be useful for operating a lamp.

I can't sit my 6 year old in the drivers seat of my car and expect her to be able to drive.  It requires some level of knowledge to do that.  A computer is no different, it also requires some basic level of knowledge.  You don't need to know megahertz or what PCI slots are to operate a computer; just as you don't need to know about the carburetor or fuel injection to operated a car.  But you do need a basic understanding. 

For computers that's a basic understanding of files, folders, and applications.  That's not "arcane technical knowledge".  I have lots of arcane technical knowledge which is very useful for repairing or setting up computers (as well as programming them and so on).  I'm sure my cars mechanic has lots of arcane mechanical knowledge about cars.  But it's perfectly safe for him to expect that I have enough basic knowledge to operate a car -- why is so bad to expect enough basic knowledge to operate a computer?

Almost Anonymous
Friday, December 12, 2003

Any BTW.. "Being a good internet citizen" I meant the operating system, not the user.

Almost Anonymous
Friday, December 12, 2003

This argument started because I argued Microsoft's decision to hide file extensions as default was the correct one.

You argued it wasn't and that they should be present by default and all users should know what a file extension is before they start using a computer.

The fact is that the majority of people who use a computer do not know what a file extension is, and have never needed to. Computing has expanded as an activity because the people who did the designing, primarily Apple and Microsoft, did not expect their users to have to know the innards. If your attitude held sway we would still be using the command line, setting environmental paths at start up, mounting drives manually, using tags in our Word Processors for formatting, and recompiling the kernel to add new hardware.

It is not only that computers can be "dumbed down", it's that they ought to be, and it's one of the primary duties of a developer to facilitate this.

Stephen Jones
Saturday, December 13, 2003

"This argument started because I argued Microsoft's decision to hide file extensions as default was the correct one."

Personally, I feel that the original Mac OS got it right.  There were no file extensions, just creator and type attributes.  Extensions are a rather old holdover from the DOS days.

The problem with "hide file extensions" is exactly that.  The extensions are still there, but they are hidden!  Let the strange behaviour abound:

People used to the old system create files try and add an extensions and get filename.txt.doc.

Viruses propagate by simply taking on a fake extension (since the real is hidden).  I used to get alot of attachments of the form image.gif.pif or image.gif.exe.  If that didn't fool people, I wouldn't be getting them.

They you have the problem of how do you actually change the file type of a file?  For "advanced" users, they really need to have file extensions shown.  So now when a new user comes to my PC (or any other PC with extensions enabled), they are confused by all the file extensions. 

Many many programs show the user the file extension and every file downloaded off the net says "you are now downloading".  So now you have an inconsistent user experience -- does the file show and extension or not?  It really just seems random!

"The fact is that the majority of people who use a computer do not know what a file extension is, and have never needed to."

The fact is that the extensions are there -- they are all over the place.  Even if you have them hidden.  It's just a big hack.

Almost Anonymous
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Extensions might be a mess, but the fact is that they should be hidden by default since the newbie won't know what to do with them, and will get into trouble renaming files if they are present.

The first thing I do is enable them, but I know what they are and what to do with them.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, December 14, 2003

The basic problem is that extensions are a bad idea. There are too few of them and they attach functional meaning to a file in a brittle fashion.

For example, what is a .dat file? Well, apparently my DVD player can play them. Yet I've never found a .dat file in the format that my DVD player accepts...

Yeah - my DVD player grabbed a very common extension when perhaps it shouldn't, but it's a symptom of a deeper problem.

What should open when I double click an HTML file? A web browser? or DreamWeaver? It'd probably depend on whether I created the file in DreamWeaver, or saved it from the web.

This sort of detail is something that shouldn't be captured in a filename. Use different icons? Yes. Filename? No.

Remember that the filename is supposed to be for the *users* convenience.

Other people have pointed out the '.gif.exe' problem. I'd suggest that that is actually a magic number problem - the browser should be able to look at the file and say 'Oi! You may think you're downloading a zip, buy you're actually downloading a program. This could be nasty' and default to cancelling the download.

Ultimately some will download it anyway, but hopefully most will notice that it didn't happen like that when they downloaded that other file last week.

And make the dialog big and red, with flashing lights, and playing a siren, so hopefully they'll notice it's important :)

Steve P
Wednesday, December 17, 2003

How do you turn the f*@*#*g thing off ? ? :<

Friday, April 2, 2004

All this talk, and nobody's bothered to mention it.
How do you disable the autohide of start menu items?

Friday, April 2, 2004


to disable it; use the menu-option just the one before 'options' in the mainmenu extra. (i'm using the dutch-version so the name won;t be much use to you)

in this menu-option you can click on 'always use full menus'

robert de pagter
Thursday, May 20, 2004

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