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I have a bunch of little submenus on a site I've inherited and their ordering is pretty random. I know there has been research showing adaptive menu ordering is confusing/frustrating and that a consistent order is better, but I was wondering if I should order the elements based on assumed frequency of use, or order them simply alphabetically.

Since this is an intranet app we can mostly assume which options are used most frequently (some are used daily, some are used less than once a week), but there are different types of users and we plan to expand the site further, so I was thinking alphabetical order would allow consistency for everyone.

Is there any research on ordering of menus related to this? I have to assume a Fitt's Law test would show the frequency of use ordering would result in faster finding of commonly used elements, but that method is less adaptable to change and less logical at first glance.

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adaptive menu that sorts itself by usage could still be used in addition to static menu or a shortcut to the last used menus (e.g. Windows' Start menu). Just make sure that the dynamic part of the menu is idempotent (i.e. opening an item in the menu wouldn't cause an irreversible actions) –  Lie Ryan Sep 9 '11 at 7:09
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My first thought would be alphabetically, because this is static and generally easy to find what you want - assuming that you can show everything on one page, and scrolling is not needed to see others, particularly common ones. As long as your names are clear, this should be easy to learn and use.

Adaptive menus are a definately no no. Changing the orders even manually I think will be confusing - people will learn where things are, and it is then far better to leave them where they are then to change them. Putting a few commonly used items at the top might work, except that I prefer it when these are visually distinguished, and I often look through everything anyway, to be sure that the item is the one that I want.

If, as you say in answer to @Todd, they are going to change in ways you cannot control or know at this point, then I would definately keep them alphabetical, otherwise you are in danger of having a changing order as new features are added, which would be horrible.

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And then you have the lovely scenario (with adaptive menus) where one coworker asks another how to do something in the system and the instructions may prove to be more confusing than helpful. "Click the first link in this menu." Totally agree that adaptive menus should be avoided in this instance. –  Matt Lavoie Sep 9 '11 at 13:00
    
If you're not able to constantly update them, I like to use random menu order for external (and less important) links. It gives the appearance of frequent updates, even when the user knows that isn't the case. –  David Clarke May 7 '13 at 4:59
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I know I'm late to this party, but I'll offer my opinion for anyone who comes across this.

I would say that menu items should be grouped logically, not by frequency of use. Would it make sense if under the Edit menu of an app you would see Copy and Cut together and then Paste way down the list because of alphabetical order? Undo and redo? No, it wouldn't.

Similarily, it wouldn't make sense, to me, to sort a website's or intranet's menus alphabetically or based on the perceived frequency of use. Maybe some users would find benefit with a feature such as smart favorites, where a group of say 10 favorites is automatically updated based on the user's most frequently accessed items. This would only be a nice-to-have though, in my opinion.

Maybe a cart sorting session would better answer this question.

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Oh, I guess I neglected to mention; the items are grouped by not sorted by logical use; in my case I was asking more for the sorting of items under an already logically related list –  Ben Brocka Oct 3 '12 at 16:42
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Is it possible to further group the grouped items into logical sub-groups? And then list them in the menu by frequency of use / hazard? –  bernk Oct 4 '12 at 18:10
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How many items are in the list? I would suggest alphabetical for "only a few" items, but maybe you could have short "most common tasks" always on top of the list, a divider and then all the less common tasks below.

If it is a website you could eventually make use if the ":visited" class in css to further highlight previously used pages.

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There's up to a half dozen "main" menu items each with one to many subitems. I'm not sure if the subitems should be sorted in terms of likelyhood of use (they're the specific links clicked) or alphabetical to keep things similar. The visited pseudoclass isn't in use because it's an application and so visited pages aren't significant and may have been updated at any time. –  Ben Brocka Sep 9 '11 at 12:17
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I think ordering menu items is a bit less strict and more flexible than that.

First of all, the ordering is not perceived strictly top to bottom: there are actually three relative positions that people will use (and remember): top, middle and bottom. Rearranging items will mostly put off users when it is sorting with this relative order, but some individual swaps may happen with little or no effect. Certain operations (like exit, about, full options, sign off) are usually on the bottom of a menu.

Ordering should also be logically grouped: related items go together. Save and save as..., print preview and print, undo and redo. I would order the groups according to use, using the top and bottom for most used, and the in between for the less commonly used operation groups.

The ordering of groups can't be done alphabetically: the terms used might not have the same first letter (undo/redo), there may be different terms floating about (some applications use 'search', others use 'find'), etc. And I'll not go into the translation nightmare...

Alphabetical ordering is fine when sorting equivalent items in a group like several bookmark items (but, the operations on bookmarks like 'add' go on top because they are a different group), or the different addon submenus. (I'm borrowing examples from browsers here, but it applies to other apps as well.)

Adaptable ordering may also be useful (and sometimes even expected) when sorting equivalent items based on latest access or popularity: think recent documents / history. I would not apply it between groups.

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If you have access to the audience, I'd try to do a session to see how they would order the submenus on frequency of use, likely through a modified closed card sort or a paper prototype. That way you could order by frequency with a qualified assumption, and maybe revisit later with actual usage data.

It's also worth keeping in mind how you think people will discover the items in the submenu. Will they be first exposed through training material, or more through just poking around the system and exploring. If the former, an alphabetic list makes the most sense because they can find the newly learned command alphabetically. If they will be exploring and finding things on their own primarily, frequency of use with a bit of research to back up the ordering sounds like a win.

Over time, I would vary the order of items very little after they are set (once a year, based on research or feedback) to prevent the biggest problem with adaptive menu ordering, which is that things jump around from where one learns to expect them.

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The problem is I have no idea how much the items may move around not because of frequency of use, but because the system may be expanded on, and we're not sure which new aspects would mesh with these old menus. –  Ben Brocka Sep 8 '11 at 16:46
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