The File Menu

This.

The File menu has been around since the dawn of user interfaces. But do you know what? It has overstayed its welcome. The File menu has been abused in far too many applications.

A File menu should deal with files. That’s it. Open a file, save a file, print a file, quit editing the file. Some, no.. most applications have been using the File menu to do everything from opening new windows to changing preferences. They don’t belong there: opening a new window should go in a Window menu, and changing preferences should be under Edit or Tools.

Here are some specific instances I’m talking about. I’m not trying to pick on any application or developer, these are just applications I have installed at the moment. But they should be fixed.

  • Firefox, Epiphany, Opera, and many other browsers are abusers of the File menu. A browser generally does not have a whole lot to do with files at all. Two, maybe three items on their File menus might actually fit. But things like Open Tab, Location, and Send Link? No. It would make more sense to rename the File menu to “Browser” or “Web”.
  • GNOME System applets like system-config-printer-applet that only have one option in their File menu: Close. Really?
  • Seahorse has a File menu that will create, import, or export keys and passwords. It kind of makes sense, but a something like “Key” or “Keyring” sounds more in-context.
  • GNOME Terminal has a File menu that doesn’t have a thing to do with files.
  • Evolution has a huge File menu that has little do with files. “Mail” or even “Evolution” would be more appropriate.

  • Synaptic's File menu could be “Package,” but considering there is already a Package menu other things would need to be reorganized.
  • Olive's File menu has more to do with branches, though some items would fit as File.
  • GConf Editor's File menu has five items for managing keys, two of which are disabled unless you know what you’re doing.
  • D-Feet has a File menu that allows you to connect to different D-Bus sessions. I can’t quite put my finger on what this should really be labeled.
  • Devhelp, a documentation browser, has a File menu that opens new windows and prints.
  • Many, many more.

Again, if you’re a developer of something on this list, don’t feel too offended. Glade (a GTK+ designer program) sticks a File menu on new menubars by default, so it may just be an oversight. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be fixed.

There are programs where it does make sense to have a File menu: Gedit, OpenOffice.org, GIMP, PiTiVi, and other applications that edit files as their main function.

Instead of dropping the File menu, it should be renamed to something more useful. Even though many applications abuse the File menu, there are plenty that do not. Banshee has a Media menu; Rhythmbox has Music. Most GNOME games have a Game menu. Baobab has Analyzer. Totem: Movie; Vinagre: Machine; Empathy: Chat; Gwibber: Gwibber.
Yes, even renaming your File menu to the name of your application might even be a good option.

So the next time you’re designing a GUI, keep in mind that your menus should make sense. Do that and we’ll have world peace. Well, maybe not, but it will shut me up.

Avatar for jacob Jacob Peddicord - http://jacob.peddicord.net/

Jacob is a web developer, student, and programmer from Ohio. He is a staff member at the Ubuntu Forums and is most likely a fanboy of the distribution. He loves to write in code and words, play video games, and rant about topics most would have abandoned long ago. Jacob uses GNOME and is never seen running stable software, much to the demise of his laptop.

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Discussion: The File Menu

  1. William Chambers (guest)

    # Posted on 01 September 2009 at 10:38 PM

    Sounds to me like something like "main" or something may be in need. Or better yet just the application's icon.



  2. # Posted on 01 September 2009 at 10:53 PM

    William Chambers said:

    Sounds to me like something like "main" or something may be in need. Or better yet just the application's icon.

    An icon would be an interesting idea, though if it was the same icon used by the window manager there would be some confusion as to which icon to click.



  3. Marc (guest)

    # Posted on 01 September 2009 at 11:09 PM

    The word "Meta" comes to mind. That would seem sufficiently snarky for the tech crowd, anyway.



  4. Ryan (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 03:56 AM

    Doesn't Mac OS have the Apple thingy in the upper left corner as a main menu?

    Anyway, are we sure that we know what our users think a file is?



  5. ulrik (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 04:25 AM

    Mac OS X has the Application's menu as the first menu; Titled with the Application's name in bold, it contains things like About, Preferences and Quit. Most applications could imagine what they would do with a menu like that.



  6. Duncan Snowden (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 04:25 AM

    I've never understood the File menu on programs that don't deal with files.

    AmigaOS calls it the Project menu. That's mainly because “project” is Amiga-ese for a non-executable file. But it still seems to fit programs that don't actually deal with files better. It's a more general word.

    Every program deals with some kind of user “project”, whether it's browsing the web, watching a movie, playing a game, or changing your desktop preferences. It may be an over-fancy word for some of those things, but at least it makes <i>sense</i>. Most of the weird things that turn up in the file menu are to do with managing your “project”: new tab, new window, open location, import key, connect to a D-Bus session... It's almost as if developers know it's really the Project menu, but have some kind of mental block on actually changing it.



  7. Jason (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 05:11 AM

    It's become a usability issue -- users expect to be able to activate the first (left most) menu by pressing ALT-F.



  8. Pete (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 05:24 AM

    I agree that "File" is often overrused and incorrect. I must disagree that "Print" belongs in a file menu. I am rarely printing a "file", instead I am printing from a "session". Once printing from a session is good enough for "File", how is "View another file in a new window" any different.

    It's tricky all around.



  9. Mouth (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 05:35 AM

    Jason said:

    It's become a usability issue -- users expect to be able to activate the first (left most) menu by pressing ALT-F.

    But that is no reason not to fix the issue and correct the user experience



  10. Richard Venneman (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 06:04 AM

    OSX uses 'Archive' most of the time. But the 'File' menu returns in projects like Firefox. An generic icon might be appopriate.



  11. audunmb (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 10:57 AM

    So I took a look at the File menu in Firefox, and what did I find:

    File menu on Firefox deals with files. It has "open file", "save as a file" and "open adress (URL)" which are nothing but files on another system. "Print" is also a file action, from the computers point of view you just send it to another output than your screen. "Import" is a file action.

    That leaves us with windows and close application which are not file actions, but are actions that you expect to find in the first menu anyway. Of course they might call it "Navigation" or something instead, but that gives different expectations than File.

    I think you are wrong, at least when it comes to Firefox.



  12. nameyname (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 01:37 PM

    I like the label "Program" for such program-level things as creating new tabs or windows that the "File" label currently governs.



  13. em (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 03:16 PM

    Read some of Joel Spolsky articles. Anything that confuse user is bad. File was here always and typical users used to it.



  14. Matt (guest)

    # Posted on 02 September 2009 at 11:22 PM

    It's a convention that everyone is used to, why mess with it. Same as the start button in windows.



  15. mpt (guest)

    # Posted on 03 September 2009 at 12:26 AM

    Most people don’t realize that “File” — like “Edit”, “View”, and “Format” — is intended as a verb, not a noun. (Evidence for this: in the Lisa, it was called “File/Print”.)

    So, the “File” menu is for filing or organizing the top-level objects that the application deals with. In a word processor, it’s documents. In an e-mail program, it’s e-mail messages. In a font manager, it’s fonts. In a game, it’s games.

    I think Web browsers were the first genre to put stress on this convention. Tim Berners-Lee’s original browser, WWW, let you create new Web pages as well as viewing them. But in pretty much every browser since then, the primary “File” > “New” item has been “New Window”. Most of the rest of the items in a browser’s “File” menu, though, still deal with filing the browser’s top-level objects, Web pages.

    I do not think the Gnome interface guidelines give appropriate advice on this.

    Richard Venneman: I don’t know of a single Mac OS X application that has an “Archive” menu. Can you give an example?



  16. # Posted on 03 September 2009 at 03:19 AM

    Matt said:

    It's a convention that everyone is used to, why mess with it. Same as the start button in windows.

    I'm pretty certain that the Start button hasn't been labeled as such for a while -- in Vista and 7, it's just a logo.



  17. Emi (guest)

    # Posted on 03 September 2009 at 03:48 PM

    mpt said:

    Richard Venneman: I don’t know of a single Mac OS X application that has an “Archive” menu. Can you give an example?

    Safari, Mail, ... and everything else!



  18. Rodney Dawes (guest)

    # Posted on 03 September 2009 at 03:54 PM

    Even for editors, a more contextual title would be better. "Document" in gedit/abiword for example, Spreadsheet in gnumeric/oocalc. Just because they're editors doesn't mean they will necessarily be dealing with files. What they're really dealing with is contet or data. It might be a file. It might be a blob in a database.



  19. yes (guest)

    # Posted on 03 September 2009 at 06:23 PM

    Jacob Peddicord said:

    Matt said:

    It's a convention that everyone is used to, why mess with it. Same as the start button in windows.

    I'm pretty certain that the Start button hasn't been labeled as such for a while -- in Vista and 7, it's just a logo.

    But the tooltip is still "Start"



  20. mpt (guest)

    # Posted on 04 September 2009 at 03:02 AM

    Emi: That is not true. Safari’s menus are File, Edit, View, History, Bookmarks, and Help. Mail’s menus are File, Edit, View, Mailbox, Message, Format, Window, and Help. Neither of them have an “Archive” menu.



  21. # Posted on 17 September 2009 at 05:13 AM

    em said:

    Read some of Joel Spolsky articles. Anything that confuse user is bad. File was here always and typical users used to it.

    Joel Spolsky knows his stuff. I'd like to sympathize with Jacob Peddicord's position, but practical experience is wrecking my GNOME experience.

    I use the keyboard extensively, and I have a hard time navigating through Totem and other GNOME apps developed by people who thought getting rid of the most general-purpose menu in userland, File (usually opened by pressing ALT-F), was an intelligent thing to do. It's not.

    But part of this is because keyboard users are so often treated like second-class citizens in GNOME. That doesn't make sense, especially when keyboard users are typically power users. That's true in the Windows and Mac worlds, where there are sensible keyboard shortcuts for nearly everything.



  22. # Posted on 17 September 2009 at 01:52 PM

    eksortso said:

    I use the keyboard extensively, and I have a hard time navigating through Totem and other GNOME apps developed by people who thought getting rid of the most general-purpose menu in userland, File (usually opened by pressing ALT-F), was an intelligent thing to do. It's not.

    F10 will always bring up the first menu in an application, regardless of its Alt- binding.



  23. Abhi Beckert (guest)

    # Posted on 28 September 2009 at 03:19 AM

    The Mac OS X menu structure is fairly clean.

    The first menu is the "application" menu (it has the same name as the app. FireFox, Terminal, Finder, Adium...).

    The application menu is in bold font, and cannot be removed by any programming API, it's a permanent fixture. Tasks like about, check for updates, preferences, and quit are in this menu.

    Most applications have a File menu (including ones which probably shouldn't), but it is usually restricted to "new file", "close file", "print file", "mail file", etc. Many applications do as you suggested (eg: Terminal has a "Shell" menu for new tab/close tab/etc.

    There are a lot of mac apps which still use the file when they shouldn't, but it's less common than on Linux/Windows and there is a clear solution already in place.



  24. Mr. Bones (guest)

    # Posted on 10 October 2009 at 04:15 AM

    I see in Konsole its just Session, Konqueror its Location, Synaptic and Firefox are still file however. I think a main menu for the appropriate program works, if its file so be it. I always navigate to the menu that I know will get my needed job done, If its named file or not isn't an issue.



  25. # Posted on 04 November 2009 at 12:58 PM

    Jason said:

    It's become a usability issue -- users expect to be able to activate the first (left most) menu by pressing ALT-F.

    Is it really? Probably depends on who the user is. Most people in my environment don't use shortcuts by the lack of knowledge about them or they simply prefer to use the mouse.

    Now of course it depends on the user but it if the group your developing the application for aren't the hardcore computer users like developers and ICT professionals but just the average Joe that would like to use his webbrowser it would make sense to name menu items according to there contains. Makes it a lot easier to find stuff because they have an actual lead on the menu name.

    Its a bit comparable with the start button Microsoft used for years... You had to start the shutdown progress... now this might not sound unreasonable but to the average Joe its weird he doesn't want to start anything he wants to quit.

    To the author I'd like to give my compliments for pointing this out its a good thing to keep in mind while developing a GUI indeed. GUI's should be as self-explaining as possible.



  26. vbrummond (guest)

    # Posted on 10 April 2010 at 01:58 AM

    I agree with this article, though changing it will not alter much in the user experience. Little papercuts like this seem to be along the lines of what Gnome is trying to do, which is why I keep using Gnome.



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