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Technical Writing Tip:
Describing Menus

It creates headaches for everyone who has to document a windowed operating system: How do you describe all of those menus, especially those that cascade two or three levels? Here are some suggestions.

  • List commands in the order the user selects them, such as "From the Insert menu, select Picture, and then From File." Or, you can simplify the command by creating a standard notation for menus, such as "Select Insert > Picture > From File." The problem with instructions like "Use the Copy command in the Edit menu" is that users have to glance back to see which command you wanted them to run.
  • Give complete menu paths, such as "From the Windows Start menu, select Programs, then Accessories, then Calculator." If you say "Run the Calculator" or "Run the Calculator from the Accessories menu," users might not know that they have to go to the Windows Start menu and then the Programs menu first.
  • Simplify the description. Terms such as "drop-down," "command," and "pop-up" are not necessary. Instead of "From the Insert drop-down menu, select the Break command," say "From the Insert menu, select Break."
  • Develop consistent terminology to describe how users activate commands from menus. Some organizations choose "click." Others choose "select." Document your terminology in your style guide.
  • Exercise your role as user advocate. If you have a hard time explaining how to get to a command, users will probably have a hard time finding it. Work with developers to cut down the levels of menus that a user has to drill down and make sure that commands are clearly labeled and in obvious menus. 

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