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Before I say anything else, I should note that the use case is fairly specific: The site is security related, allowing the customer to manage remote connections, video libraries, and user access. The end user is a mix between loss prevention employees and security integrators.

The current design has as many as 3 toolbars on screen at once due to the use of a ribbon for second level navigation. My thought process is that a drop down is optimal because it eliminates the second level toolbar and that the demographic will be using it like a enterprise application.

But that brought up the question: For enterprise software, is there layout better than the drop down menu that I should consider?

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  • It would be helpful if you could visualize how the navigation and toolbars is currently present in your UI so it would be easier to imagine how it actually works. – adam.heleniak Jan 8 '15 at 23:38
  • Alright, I added a quick representation. – dmacfour Jan 8 '15 at 23:53
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No.

My reason for saying this is simple: users do not like change. Users will know quickly that if they hover over an item on the nav bar, a dropdown menu will appear, because on so many sites before this, that is what happened. At the same time, this does not mean you should not add new things, and there is much room for improvement on the hover menu, and many ways to change it to make it more functional, so by all means, try to improve on it while keeping the hover menu concept.


Good Luck!

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I can't tell for sure, but it sounds like your dealing with one of the classic issues of Enterprise level software, growth. As your solution adds features, new screens are added and existing screens are augmented with additional data entry fields and buttons. Your navigation needs grow and so does the size of many of your entry screens. Eventually, your site navigation is begging for more screen space which your entry screens can't provide and it is time to rethink the navigation metaphor.

Welcome to the answer to the question, "why is mature Enterprise Software always so ugly?"

Here is how I've handled it in the past...

Stop trying to mix the full navigation functions into every screen. It's not really necessary that a single click can take a user from any screen in the system to any other screen. Click optimization in this situation, comes at too high a price.

Steps to Follow...

  1. Remove the drop down menu, the navigation and sub-navigation toolbars and anything else which is present on every page in the system. Utilize the recovered screen space for more white space, better input field organization and well placed help text.
  2. Add a single small hamburger button in the same location on every screen. Put it in one of the corners, out of the way so that the rest of each screen can be dedicated to its unique functionality.
  3. Add one additional screen to your application to function as a navigation page or site-map. Using the full space of this screen, graphically depict all of the functionality of the application and then make each element on this page into a navigational link to the appropriate screen. Make all of the hamburger buttons throughout the application link to this new page.

In doing this, you will require your user to perform two clicks to get from any screen to any other. Exiting from their current screen by clicking its hamburger button, then clicking on one of the links on the resulting navigation page to proceed to the next desired screen. This may sound like you are moving backwards in terms of usability, but for this minor back-step, we are providing much greater site organization. It is a very fair trade. ...and as a bonus, by eliminating all of your existing navigation from every screen, you are freeing up screen space on every functional screen in your system. Space which can be used in many wonderful UX friendly ways.

-- edits in response to comments --

Apparently I was unclear above. Enterprise Software tends to become ugly because of a number of factors including lack of white space, poor clustering of related controls and poorly organized navigation. All of these factors emerge from the ever-expanding scope of functionality which most enterprise software has to contend with. Dedicating large horizontal swaths of screen space, to provide three tool-bars on every screen, unnecessarily contributes to these factors.

Replacing the tool-bars with a drop down menu would recover much of this lost screen space. Replacing both the tool-bars and the drop down menu with a hamburger button would recover event more.

The hamburger button, like any UX technique has supporters and detractors. I tend to ignore the fanatical extremists at both ends. Articles which start with the words "That little three-lined button is the devil", fall into the fanatical zone for me. I believe that every UX technique has specific use cases which justify their use and other opposing use cases where their use is inappropriate. I believe that consideration of these use cases trumps the all-or-nothing mandates of the extremists.

The OP's situation appears to be an appropriate use-case for a web-site hamburger button because of the following factors. ( OP, please correct me if any of the assumptions below are incorrect ).

  1. The site is a line of business application, facilitating skilled users to perform specific, repetitive tasks.
  2. The vast majority of its traffic will come from users who have used the site before. New users, who might have issues with hamburger button discover-ability, are greatly outnumbers by users who access the site every day.
  3. Screen space is becoming precious, especially on the most used screens where the UI elements for recently added features have added complexity and crowding to the design.
  4. The site's current navigation is becoming inadequate as none of the unused spots on the second and third tool-bars are really appropriate for each newly added options. Menu organization is becoming a challenge.

A hamburger button leading to a dedicated navigation page, although suffering from some new user issues due to its low discover-ability, is an appropriate choice for an already large, growing enterprise solution with an existing, dedicated user-base.

-- edit in response to question in comments --

The hamburger button would just be an image with a link to the dedicated navigation page. The value of my answer is not the hamburger. That is just the mechanism for getting to the dedicated page. Its only a hamburger because that is an established symbol for a menu. The dedicated page is the heart of my idea, a full page of screen space dedicated to navigation with all the options grouped and organized in a way that is meaningful to the users.

Example : The QuickBooks Main Screen with all of the program's features arranged graphically with symbols for data entry screens and lines to depict transaction flow.

Example : A subway map with all of the terminals and associated bus routes clearly labelled.

The idea is to break the navigation away from the limits of text-based popup menus. Give it some screen space and some design attention and you can turn that one-additional button click (on the hamburger to get to the dedicated page) into a major enhancement in the obviousness of the application's scope and domain.

  • This article sums up what a lot of people think about the hamburger menu option - techcrunch.com/2014/05/24/before-the-hamburger-button-kills-you - It's mobile focused but the sentiment is clear. Enterprise software isn't ugly just because of visible menus, and hiding everything behind an icon kills the effect of the menu on orientation and discoverability. – dennislees Jan 9 '15 at 2:34
  • Do you have an example of how this hamburger menu would be executed? Would it function the same as a hamburger menu on a mobile app? – dmacfour Jan 9 '15 at 16:26

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