The new Unity interface in Ubuntu since version 11.04 has a global menu bar. This menu bar shows a behaviour that I find very surprising, it hides the menu entries as long as the cursor is not above the menu bar.

When the cursor is somewhere else it looks like this:

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and when you hover over the menu bar it looks like this:

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I can personally think only of disadvantages of this approach, it makes it harder for me to directly move the cursor to a specific menu, instead I have to first mouse over the menu and then move horizontally to the target menu.

As this feature remains the same in the latest Ubuntu version it seems to be a deliberate choice and I assume Canonical put a lot of thought into it. So I assume there are advantages to doing it that way that I just can't think of at the moment.

What are the usability advantages and disadvantages of hiding the menus in this way?

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    The only advantage I can see is in giving a nice full name of the current application, other than that this seems like a terrible idea. – Ben Brocka Oct 19 '11 at 14:08
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    Not a Linux user myself, I was wondering if this is something that can be turned off or not? – Bart Gijssens Oct 20 '11 at 6:52

Playing devil's advocate here: it may be good for first-time users, so they are not overwhelmed by too many choices. When they by chance (or confidence) get to slide the mouse over the title, they will discover they can do more with the application.

The problem with this approach is that the default interfaces of all applications have to be really easy. Which is not the case, and is out of Canonical's control. So this move will probably end up frustrating the power users and the new users alike.

  • Well, in general there's a UI school of thought that says you shouldn't have to "scrub" a GUI to understand it. Also, a novice user might also simply wonder, how he might open a file. It isn't as though the menu only has advanced options. – Ken Kinder Feb 12 '12 at 23:30

Full disclosure, I prefer keyboard shortcuts to menus even though they aren't visible.

I think all menus already obscure their content, so it's not just a case of knowing where 'file, edit, etc' are you already need to know what is inside them. If you know what is inside them then chances are you know where they are positioned on the screen.

As such I don't see hiding them when not in use as a disadvantage, or any more disadvantageous than a comparable global menu. I'm currently looking at my own desktop and I've actually disabled firefox's menu.

Advantages - more vertical space as others have mentioned, more focused environment on task that the user is engaged in. Perhaps discourages developers from creating awful interfaces that just lump everything into the menus.

Disadvantages - break from tradition, people who have become used to only interacting with a computer in one way may struggle to adapt.


A lot of people who use Linux keep their hands always on the keyboard. In this case you can press the alt key and then press the key for the menu you would like to access.

If you notice, a lot of applications are doing things like this. For example with Firefox that style menu doesn't show unless you press the alt key. I understand the disadvantages that you described above, and in this case you don't seem to gain any real estate (as is the main benefit for ff), but you do gain a less cluttered interface. This, I imagine, is the main reason they went with the decision. And while it can be disputed if it is a better interface, I personally like simple interfaces to cluttered ones.

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    Keyboard? Isn't the interface designed for use on both tablets and PCs? – e100 Oct 19 '11 at 16:45
  • I think that menu would be the least of your problems if you were using the gimp on a tablet. I would be very handicapped without having keyboard shortcuts in that application. – Matt Lavoie Oct 19 '11 at 17:48
  • Firefox does things that way because the menu is rarely used beyond the address bar features. Something like GIMP is almost unusable without easy access to menus, depending on your use case. – Ben Brocka Oct 20 '11 at 13:25
  • FWIW, there seems to be some lag when you press "alt" and wait for the menu to show up. – Ken Kinder Feb 12 '12 at 23:30

Advantage: It saves vertical space

Ubuntu Unity was originally designed for Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a GNU/Linux distribution made for devices with 9" to 10" (220 to 250 mm) displays with roughly 1024x600 pixels. (Though netbooks stopped being manufactured roughly at the end of 2012, 10" tablets with detachable keyboards such as the ASUS Transformer Book have entered the same niche.) As chhantyal points out in another question, collapsing the title bar and menu bar into one line of text allows applications to show one more line of text on a small screen.

Disadvantage: Mystery meat navigation

Vincent Flanders of Web Pages That Suck coined the term "mystery meat navigation" to refer to UI elements that provide insufficient visual cues to their existence or function until the user hovers over them. As laptops began to incorporate touch screens, which react only to contact and not proximity, the hover action became more difficult or even impossible to trigger.

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