Rant on Web Interfaces: Quick Context Menus

There are distinct advantages of having a desktop application. Many of the reasons – I won’t mention or address all of them here – are offline support, OS integration, local computation, tolerance against servers being down, and lower latency. However, imagine if your file manager became web based. You’d pretty much lose the support for contextual menus…..

For any of those that have seen one of my highest voted answers, they could conclude that I’m largely in favor of web applications. However, that’s not entirely the case. Many technical journalists, venture capitalists, and startup executives would have you to believe that desktop applications are no longer relevant. To put it simply, that is what they used to say. The “replacement” for desktop applications are mobile applications on a tablet/mobile and a web application. It’s lunacy to make these claims, but they remain unquestioned when someone smug makes them.

There are distinct advantages of having a desktop application. Many of the reasons – I won’t mention or address all of them here – are offline support, OS integration, local computation, tolerance against servers being down, and lower latency. However, imagine if your file manager became web based. You’d pretty much lose the support for contextual menus, or at least until it became a big enough priority for the organization running the site to add it. In the web-based file manager, to email a file, you’d have to open up the file [say a document] and go to file send every time you wanted to email a file. Let’s say you wanted to send the document to be printed at Kinko’s/FedEx: Just hope the provider of the file browser offered that support. What I’m complaining about is the lack of right-click functionality on objects you want to manipulate on the web.

Most applications do this wrong. They tend to list all of the objects [mail, messages, timesheets, etc] you would like to manipulate and then crowd the space with the same repetitive actions on each line (Edit, Delete, etc) Let’s take the example of Gmail: by right-clicking on a message, you don’t get the same options as you do in Outlook. There is no contextual support, you’ll see your standard web browser “contextual menu” (Back, reload, save as, Print [the web page], View Source….) With Outlook you’ll be provided the following options: Open, Print (the message),  Follow up, Reply, Reply All, Forward, Create Rule, Send to Evernote, etc. Imagine how much faster an experienced user would be if that functionality was exposed from the Inbox.

Imagine that you were able to perform a search and then able to perform a right-click action. You’d be given the option to Share, Remove from your search, save the link to some external site, etc. Hotel search sites should give you an option to right click on the hotel and give the option to search nearby, or save to a list elsewhere. Saving to a list for later would be helpful when you are comparing hotels and rates between two locations that are far apart.

Weirdly enough, Google Documents does a good job with their contextual menus. Within a document, right clicking gives you a simplified menu that you’d see in the equivalent desktop application. Even going further, it gives you the ability to “research” the selected text, with the option of Google, Google Scholar, and within your own Google Docs. That’s awesome. In the document view it gives you the options that you’d see in most file managers [Open, Move, change metadata, Delete, etc]. The web client on Dropbox also does a good job about this.
Not all web applications fail to provide menus, some applications do a good job, but they tend to be incredibly rare to see.

Some websites that could benefit from contextual menus:

  • News articles: (Right click for the printable page, sharing highlighted bits, or to qoute in the comments)
  • Most websites that allow you to save an object (individual item to buy, compare etc): Right click to save, or remove the item from the list
  • User generated content sites – Report, ignore [user], reply, and share [to other sites]
  • Pages that display an order confirmation: Bring up the carrier’s tracking page, printable invoice

One thought on “Rant on Web Interfaces: Quick Context Menus”

  1. 1 thing I’d like to see in an online shopping site context menu: Add to Comparison List and Compare Items.

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