Basement Menus and Breaking the “Rules” of App Design

Luis Abreu has an interesting breakdown of basement menus in his recent post: Why and How to avoid Hamburger Menus. It has some great points and is certainly worth a read, but it got me thinking about when to break the “rules” of UI design.

During the course of my design critique of Glassboard for iPhone, I listed the questions I ask myself when considering whether to use a basement menu in an app:

  1. Is there a single screen where the user spends most of her time?

  2. Is there a dynamic number of equally-weighted menu items?

  3. Are the contents of the menu easy to memorize?

  4. Are hard-to-memorize items used infrequently?

  5. Are the number of items kept to a minimum?

It’s important to note that this is a list of questions, not a list of reasons. There are times when a basement menu is a bad choice, and there times when it is a great choice. Every app has a unique set of goals and constraints. It’s up to the designer to find a good solution. Don’t limit your choices prematurely by assuming some options are off-limits.

As I’m discovering with Unread for iPad, even design patterns that are almost universally maligned can sometimes be the best choice. Apple, via moments like an on-stage presentation by Phil Schiller1, taught us all how much better iPad apps are than most Android tablet apps. The latter are typically just scaled-up versions of their phone-form cousins, whereas iPad apps are designed to take advantage of the iPad’s display. I don’t know about you, but I found myself immediately agreeing with Schiller’s comment that day. From then on, I took it as a given that no self-respecting app designer would design an iPad app that is just a blown-up form of its iPhone version.

But a scaled-up iPhone layout turned out to be the best choice for Unread on the iPad. As I describe in detail here, a full-screen iPad layout is more faithful to Unread’s goal of a relaxed, focused reading experience. It also makes it possible to navigate almost anywhere in the app without having to reposition your hands from the edges of the device.

The fun and the frustration of creative work are two sides of the same coin. Treat every project like it’s your first. Marc Edwards shared a fantastic anecdote about this recently. He recalls what it was like to work with a lead designer who, from the outside, appeared to be an indecisive flake:

Then it clicked.

He’d intentionally try different and crazy things, knowing that most wouldn’t work. He didn’t care. He didn’t care and it didn’t matter — we’d end up in places we never would have if we over thought the layout. The question wasn’t “what is the best way?”, but “what are the many ways?”, deferring judgement until the last possible moment. Judgement may feel good, but it has no value. The value is in the outcome.

And the outcome was often solid, stunning designs that were unconventional. Non-obvious solutions. From the outside and to other art directors, it appeared magical. But, from within the process, far less nuanced and intentional.

  1. See the 2012 iPad mini announcement here. Schiller’s comments begin around the 11:52 mark. 

|  18 May 2014