The Pros and Cons of Pie
By Eddie LopezEddie_Lopez. Thursday, January 4, 2007 5:05:47 AM
I saw this article talking about the pie menu (extension) in Firefox.... does Opera do anything like this?
...the other day in some article about the *next* version of Windows that may (or may not) include pie menus... the author discussed the Firefox extension in the absence of any Windows based examples. So that got me explaining the difference between mouse gestures and pie menus, and I thought a little bit about what I like and dislike about them that I thought I'd share.
Pie menus are great in my opinion. At least, much greater than what we have for menus and toolbars. They take the mouse travel out of the equation and change it into mouse direction. So you're not constantly moving all the way over to the back button, then back to page content... (I'm already tired!). In addition, they take a context sensitive approach. What your mouse is hovering over at the time you bring up a pie menu determines what kind of menu you get. The latest version of Office includes the context sensitive part in the "the Ribbon."
All this is of course very familiar to Opera users, or any mouse gesture fan. The big difference between the two is that you don't get to see what's going on with mouse gestures. You'll get feedback only after the command has been executed, and hopefully it will match what you intended it to do.
It sounds like I'm putting down Opera's approach (of course available as a FF extension as well), but I'm not. In fact, I prefer this approach in the long run as it forces simplicity and activity centered design. I explained back to the email (paraphrased if you're reading Shelly):
Pie menues might be better for “the masses” because you can see it on the screen, you get visual feedback and an actual menu that might remind you of a command you may have forgotten about. Mouse gestures have the advantage in that you can easily do them without looking at them. You can be in the middle of reading an article and execute the “close page” gesture even as you’re still reading the last sentence…. Since you don’t have to actually look or “hit a target” with the mouse, I prefer them over pie menus. The command is invisible to me.
(I do like to woo the ladies with usability talk)
Now, I'm sure experienced pie menu users can execute them without looking at the menu, and I think that's great. It's a nice "best of both worlds" approach, but gestures are *designed* to be executed without looking at a menu, which is a different approach. Nested pie menus are possible, but nested mouse gestures would be too cumbersome. I tend to keep my mouse gestures at the very max three movements only (left, right, left to enable fit to width... I envision my mouse bouncing of the edges of the page to "shake" it to the correct horizontal spacing of fit-to-width). Since I love my browser mouse gestures so much, I tried the software that lets you use them on Windows and was sorely dissappointed. Mainly because they weren't native and not nearly as responsive as in Opera, but also because I had to draw letters of the alphabet with and complex gestures with my mouse that were impossible if you didn't show the trail. This defeats the purpose of the mouse gesture to me- that you can execute a command without having to spend any mental cycles thinking about the physical act of execution.
I love replying the slashdot comments about how mouse gestures are for lazy people. It has nothing to do with that. I love mouse gestures because I dont' have to divert from whatever task I'm doing (reading a page, thinking about the next tab I want to view...etc..) just to preform some browser UI manipulation. Gestures are the epitome of "the UI shouldn't get in the way." I think "back" and I'm back in history. I don't have to right click, select from a menu, or look up at the browser bar and find the "back" target. The muscle memory takes over and it's absolutely seemless.
Pie Menus are nice because you could achieve this same "muscle memory" feeling while still having visual feedback in case your muscles don't quite remember. I think that's great in the long run but it opens the door to overly complicating the simplicity of the pie menu. It's tempting to make the slices really small and cram as much in there as you can, or to nest pie menus together. It's probably still better than what most menus look like now, but keeping me focused on my tasks (activity centered design!) and not inviting complexity into the menu is why I prefer mouse gestures over pie menus.
Of course, as I write this- it would be nice to have a combination of them. Executing a gesture up would start a pie menu, but the other (left/right/down and subordinate movements) ones would be traditional mouse gestures. But that would probably blow my mind.