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I always find myself with customers who want drop-down menus because 'they are used to them'. So I started to wonder: When are drop-down menus actually necessary?

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Dropdowns as opposed to what? In different contexts they might be compared to different alternatives (a list of radio buttons, a list of links, a listbox, maybe others), and the answers would differ accordingly. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky May 12 '11 at 16:02

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted
Please ignore the first part of the answer, I was referring to drop-down lists 
instead of menus. Update below.

Pros

  • Long lists use very little space (de-clutter interface)
  • The list is scaleable (you can add more items later if need without any GUI change)
  • Keyboard can be used to access items (very useful for advanced users)
  • It's a very common element (doesn't cause any problems for most users)

Cons

  • You can't see the content without interaction (clicking). This means it should never be used for navigation purpose.
  • If the items don't have a logical order, dropdowns are a pain to use (items should be A-Z or numerical)

That's all what comes to my mind at the moment. Any additions?

Update: As mentioned in the comments, I've misread the question and was referring to drop-down lists instead of menus. So here's my new answer:

Drop-down menus, especially "mega drop-downs" work very well when used correctly. Here's everything you need to know about this pattern - written by Mr. Nielsen himself: Mega Drop-Down Navigation Menus Work Well. And here's an article on what you shouldn't do, again by Jakob Nielsen: Mega-Menus Gone Wrong

One more thing you should keep in mind: Drop-down menus can be very tricky (or if done wrong impossible) to use on mobile browsers (no mouse over state). So make sure you test it on mobile browsers or provide an mobile version.

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+1 on the pros, but I disagree with your cons. Usually dropdowns shouldn't be the only means of navigation, and not even the primary means, but they're ok as a secondary means - in a "go to" context, or when they hold a list of pages in a PDF, for example. Note that the top bar at SE has two dropdowns used for navigation (the username and the SE dropdown), and I think they work very well. Granted, those are smart custom dropdowns, but that doesn't matter much. Your second "con" bullet is definitely right for long lists, but in a short list this isn't significant. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky May 12 '11 at 15:59
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would you please elaborate a little with regard to your first 'con'? You say 'This means it should never be used for navigation purpose.', but isn't navigation a prime use of menus (example: hongkiat.com/blog/…)? Or are you referring to drop-down lists? –  JeremyDWill May 12 '11 at 16:05
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Good pros, and i agree to disagree with your cons. –  Matt Rockwell May 12 '11 at 16:21
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Ooops, sorry guys - as Jeremy suspected I was referring to drop-down lists instead of menus. I'll update my answer asap. +1 for all three comments. –  Phil May 12 '11 at 18:28
    
+1 with the edited material - thanks for the clarification @Phil. –  JeremyDWill May 12 '11 at 21:17

They are a great solution for displaying several options, but only taking up a minimal amount of space once the choice has been made. For example, a list of countries. Certainly you could list them all out in a list box or something, but it would take up an large amount space that could be used more efficiently. Then also help to de-clutter the interface.

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