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I've read suggestions that contextual menu items be arranged in a circle around the mouse cursor when the menu is activated, since Fitz's Law suggests that each target would be easier to hit.

However, I've never seen this in practice. (I can think of a few simple reasons: text is hard to fit in the space afforded by a wedge-shaped target, it's not a standard pattern and is perceived to be too confusing, etc.)

Are the potential benefits just not worth the trade-off? Are there examples that work that I'm unaware of?

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4  
Maxis uses this in The Sims when clicking on your person to perform actions. ex: call->friend->[friends name] –  Samuel Aug 9 '10 at 19:52
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Here are some examples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pie_menu#Notable_implementations –  Ignacio Aug 9 '10 at 19:54

10 Answers 10

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I have seen radial menus few times. I have tested a Firefox addon that arranged contextual menu in a circle. Also it was used in some computer games (Temple of Elemental Evil comes to mind when I think about it). It somehow didn't work.

  • It is much easier to scan a list of options (your eyes move top-down) than options arranged in a circle (your eyes must move in many directions).
  • Not all options are equal. Some are more important or more frequently used (should be closer to mouse pointer according to Fitz's Law) than others.
  • You really have a problem with longer items and subitems. The game I mentioned earlier managed to handle it quite nicely visualy, by rotating all the options around the central point. The problem is that when there are more options, you have to read some of them from down to up, others from left to right and the rest goes from top to down.

I think radial contextual menus can work in specific situations (low number of options, items can be represented as icons without a text, etc.). But generally they're not really a good idea.

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"You really have a problem with longer items and subitems." -- How so? Many radial menus are multi-level (the sims, Maya marking menus, etc). Multi-line item labels seem more natural to deal with in a radial menu than a linear one. –  OverMachoGrande Aug 10 '10 at 8:51
    
I had similar experiences - also with ToEE and IIRC the Pools of Radiance remake. However, I found most implementations seriously lacking in "grease" - i.e. assuming that "circular menu" makes it so much better that response times, visual cues, going back and forth etc. don't matter anymore. –  peterchen Dec 16 '10 at 14:38
    
Two comments on the accepted answer: (1) The correct term is Fitts' Law rather than Fitz's Law, (2) neither of the first two bulleted points is supported by research on this topic. –  user1757436 Jan 15 '13 at 17:00

I disagree strongly with the accepted answer here (but I'm currently implementing one, so I'm biased). As for research/support, there's been a number of articles published on this topic, by Don Hopkins in particular. Check this video out, too. Here are some highlights from Don Hopkin's original study on Pie Menus:

Seek time (shorter = faster):

alt text

Error rate (shorter = fewer errors):

alt text

The study's conclusion tempers the results somewhat:

What does this mean? Should we program pie menus into our bitmapped window systems tomorrow and expect a 15-20% increase in productivity since users can select items slightly faster with pie menus. Pie menus seem promising, but more experiments are needed before issuing a strong recommendation. First, this experiment only addresses fixed length menus, in particular, menus consisting of 8 items - no more, no less. Secondly, there remains the problem of increased screen real estate usage, In one trial a subject complained because the pie menu obscured his view of the target prompt message. Finally, the questionnaire showed that the subjects were almost evenly divided between pie and linear menus in subjective satisfaction. Many found it difficult to "home in on" a particular item because of the unusual activation region characteristics of the pie menu.

Advantages:

  • Better for repeated use as they can be learned in muscle memory
  • Faster to select a particular item
  • Lower error rate (especially when implemented correctly, such that the hit target for an area is the entire region)
  • More natural for sub-menus

Disadvantages:

  • Implementation
  • Harder to scan
  • Large; can cover up content
  • Max 12 items
  • Bad for variable-length lists or items that may move in position
  • Unfamiliar
  • Seem not to appeal to "techy" users

Successful uses of radial menus:

  • Many video games, notably The Sims series. This game is worth playing if you're thinking about them, just to see how much they improve the experience
  • Maya, blender, and other 3D packages
  • Mouse gestures in Opera and other browsers (invisible radial menu - but basically the same thing)
  • While not radial, the windows start menu's nonlinear design. On Win7, from clicking start, I can very easily access my pinned icons, "All programs", the different "places" on the right, shut down, or the search box
  • Ditto office 2007, in particular the set of formatting tools that appear above a selection. In fact if you right-click on a selection in Office 2010, you get:

alt text

A nonlinear menu! Not radial by any means, however many of the important options are distinguished by angle from the cursor as well as distance.

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1  
I think one problem pie menus have suffered is that I’ve also seen a lot of bad implementations of pie menus. e.g. If items don’t appear in a predictable place, you lose the muscle-memory advantage. If the selection slices don’t extend far enough, you lose the larger target advantage. –  Robert Fisher Aug 11 '10 at 19:56
    
@Robert Fisher: Full Ack. I'd love to play with a good implementaiton. –  peterchen Dec 16 '10 at 14:43

I think Radial menus make a lot of sense in touch interfaces. The couple of places I have seen Radial menus in place include the now-Google-acquired Bumptop application alt text

and more recently on the Dolphin browser for the Android. Windows 7 has a pie menu too which makes sense since its going to be used in a lot of touch devices.

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I can't seem to find pie menus in windows 7, and I have a touch capable device running it? –  Ape-inago Dec 16 '10 at 8:58

Here are a couple of good blog posts to look at that have a great explanation of why radial menus can be a good way of displaying options to your user.

  1. Usability of Radial Menus
  2. Touch Means Renaissance for Touch Devices

Basically they explain that radial menus can be a great way to display a right click type of contextual menu in touch devices. Once a user gets used to the initial format, frequent users find that speed of use increase in frequent users.

A good example of this would be in games. A lot of games favor a radial menu over a list menu for speed-of-use. In a fast-paced environment such as a game, radial menus go a long way to helping a user make a selection for their given scenario.

My iOSContextualMenu open source code is a good example of radial menus used in touch devices. Here's a couple of screenshots to show how it could be implemented!

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

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Cool example! Can you elaborate a bit as to why your menu is better than a vertical menu? –  Charles Wesley May 8 at 23:03
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@CharlesWesley I just did. Check it out and let me know what you think! –  Hector Matos May 9 at 0:03

Radical contextual menus can be harder to program for than vertical list menus. There are less existing libraries or components for it, and the programmer might need to write custom code to position each menu item.

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Vertical Menus are easier to scan, also most radial ones have little space to show text so they show icons instead, making it even more difficult to easily find the option you are looking for.

I can see radial menus work for repetitive tasks, they would have a small learning curve for the user though. I would not recommend them for navigation.

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[360 browser][1] looks pretty good on iPhone.

I think the main drawback of such menus is that you can hardly put text. So you'll have only icon based menu which is very difficult at the beginning.

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Not quite the same, but the wacom pointing device I am using has a circle menu. Clicking the center of the physical circle brings up a on screen display, touching along the outer circle skips through the options and selects a tool accordingly.

Here is an example of the on screen display:

enter image description here

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I think radial menus have more of a place in touch applications rather than WIMP applications. For example, Cabinet -- a pdf reader for iOS -- uses radial menus for highlighting. It works remarkably well on a touch device since it is very natural to touch and then slide your finger. Not only does it work well, but it's a delight to use.

The main advantage I see on touch devices is that you tend to build muscle memory for the options you use most, which becomes a very natural way to learn what would otherwise be a somewhat convoluted gesture. You get the benefits of gesture input without the steep learning curve often associated with gestures.

As for the question in the title bar: Are they better? Like with nearly all ux questions, the answer is "it depends". They are better for some tasks, but not better for all.

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I would be confused. Not necessarily because it is hard to perceive but just because it is different.

But on the other hand different is good! and users can become accustomed and like it (like the office ribbon)

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