KDE and the Menu Crisis

The menu crisis has been slow in coming — so slowly that few people are aware of it. Bit by bit, they have become accustomed to the inconvenience and distraction of the menu on the computer desktop, and learned to endure it. Yet the fact that KDE’s Plasma 5 desktop offers three choices of menu layouts, as well as a couple of alternatives to alleviate the difficulties shows just how little consensus exists about the most usable menu design.

The crisis exists because the menu was designed when thirty megabyte hard drives were the norm, yet we continue to use it. The purpose of a menu is to launch an application, preferably as quickly as possible, so a user’s work flow is uninterrupted. When personal computers were first introduced, menus easily filled this purpose. Few applications were available, and menus rarely had to be more than a couple of levels deep, so applications could easily be found.

However, as hard drives became larger, users had to scan more and more applications to find the one they wanted. The most extreme case was the Debian menu, which in places was six or seven levels deep. All sorts of partial solutions were tried –for example, not listing all the applications, a search field, and favorite list — but the problem has steadily increased with the size of drives. Probably the only reason why all the stopgap designs and solutions for menus are tolerated at all is that their uses on phones and tablets means that they have conditioned all of us to endure the awkwardness as the norm. Most users simply assume that nothing can be done, and continue using menus the same as always — ironically, often at the same time as moving away from desktop launchers, which can have the same problems, but can at least take provide another solution to help keep menus functioning.

Three Imperfect Solutions

Plasma 5 exemplifies the problem by offering three alternative menu designs. Many users are unaware of the fact, but if they click Unlock Widgets from the desktop toolbar, then right-click on the menu’s icon and select Alternatives, they have a choice of three menu layouts — all widely used, and none of which does much to address the crisis. But, then, other desktop environments are no better, and none offer as many alternatives.

The oldest choice available in Plasma is a cascading menu, the type that has been used for menus from the beginning. Plasma limits its cascading menu to three levels, but even that is enough to make the menus spill out over three quarters of the screen.

Any time that you have to turn your attention from your work to start an application means risking distraction. If you are programming or writing, by the time you finish with a menu, you may find that you have lost your train of thought, especially when you are tired, or not feeling like working. However, with cascading menus, the distraction becomes almost certain. In the case of Plasma 5, you have thirteen top level menu items, each of which — depending on what applications you have installed — can have another two levels. If that is not enough to distract you, having up to three levels of menu spilling out across your active window sooner or later will. The simple need to start another application may mean that you lose another five or ten minutes getting back in the zone of whatever you are working on — a high price for what should be a routine action.


At least, though, the cascading menu keeps you on the same screen. If you choose the full-screen option, Plasma moves you to an entirely different screen. Admittedly, the full-screen option does have the advantage of displaying all the major features of a menu, such as logout options and favorites, all on the same screen. Yet not only are you moved away from your work, but reading the full-screen menu is difficult because you can half-see your active window behind it.

full-screen-menuThen, just to make matters worse, the full-screen menu gives the same thirteen top levels menu items. Only two thirds of the top level items are visible, which means that scrolling may be required. When you do find the top level item you want, its contents display as icons, which often have to be scrolled through in their turn. Compared to the full-screen menu, the cascading menu can almost look distraction-free.

The final menu alternative in Plasma is the default. Although it lacks its own name, I think of it as the hybrid. Like the cascading design, the hybrid has several menu levels. However, it keeps them confined to a single window by only showing one at a time. As a result, only about a third of the screen is obscured by an open menu, which gives you at least a chance of not losing your place in the active window.

hybrid-menuAll the same, the hybrid can easily distract users. Its top level menus require scrolling, and the breadcrumb trail for navigation sits separately above the menu items. Some users, too, may be puzzled by the lack of an obvious search field until they realize that all they need to do to search is to start typing. Moreover, unlike in Plasma 4, the current hybrid menu cannot be resized. Probably, the hybrid is the best of Plasma 3’s alternatives, but it is still not especially efficient.

Looking for Alternatives
Plasma has a history of alternatives. Plasma 4, for example, had a widget called Lancelot that provided another variation on the hybrid menu. Another feature always included in KDE is Krunner, a single line field for experts that be used to launch applications, as well as convert currencies and a half dozen other features. However, Krunner requires a knowledge of what is installed, and has the annoying habit of closing once a command is run.

A more practical alternative is the Quick Launch wizard. Quick Launch is a dash, and with some organizational effort, you can add several groupings of icons common to a particular task, such as writing or editing graphics. Place no more than about half a dozen icons in each widget, and the widget should be accessible quickly and without the focus changing from the open window.

quick-launchHowever, by far the best solution is to set up an Activity for each of your common tasks. Add application launchers to the desktop for all the resources you are likely to need for the task, from applications to URLS and documents, and everything you normally need is never more than one click away.

activitiesThe main disadvantage of both Quick Launch and Activities is that they take time to customize. In addition, you still cannot efficiently find and launch something unusual. All the same, until someone designs an efficient alternative for modern computing, at least both can reduce the time you spend navigating menus and stay more focused on your work.