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October 15th, 2009

Those of you who follow this blog regularly already know the tip I’m sharing today. It’s about the control I created a couple of years ago: VistaMenu.

Normally I would just show a menu from Windows 7 and say “this is how you do it”. Take the menu above, for example. It’s the context menu when you right click the desktop in Windows 7. It’s subtle and usable. It’s less about being visually appealing than it is about being usable.

I find Windows Vista and Windows 7 menus to be aesthetically pleasing. However, not everyone would agree.

Aesthetics – ask 1000 people, get 1000 opinions

How do you judge art? It’s damn near impossible to get 100% consensus. Luckily programs aren’t art – they have utility first and style second.

Or, put more simply, if the style detracts from usability it is bad style.

Here are a couple of examples of bad menus. The following menus are tacky for the simple reason that the styling adds no extras usability. The excessive gradients and bad backgrounds distracts from the purpose of the menus:

Difference between MenuStrip and MainMenu

If you’ve been programming with Windows Forms for any length of time, it’s very likely you already use MenuStrips and ContextMenuStrips. They are entirely custom-draw menus created by Microsoft and included in .NET Framework 2.0+.

However, the theme of the MenuStrip and ContextMenuStrip controls don’t automatically adjust to match the Windows 7 theme. But, as you can see below, the MainMenu and ContextMenu controls do match the Windows 7 theme.

You can add MainMenu & ContextMenu to Visual Studio by right clicking the toolbox, clicking “Choose Items…” and checking the “MainMenu” and “ContextMenu” check boxes.

Why you should always use MainMenu

If all the discussion of aesthetics was lost on you, then you should always use MainMenu for two simple reasons:

  1. Your program will look like it fits in with all the other programs on your users’ computers
  2. Microsoft does the hard work for you. That is, with each new version of Windows Microsoft subtly tweaks the menu to be more usable.

The MenuStrip and ContextMenuStrip controls are written entirely in C# and will forever look as tacky as they do now. The MainMenu and ContextMenu, however, are simple wrappers around the Windows API. This means that whenever Microsoft updates the menu API in Windows you will get all the usability improvements without lifting a finger.

Look at the screenshot below and you can see how Microsoft even changed the menu API between Windows Vista and Windows 7. The borders are sharper, the colors are tweaked, and the gradient is toned down.

Adding icons to MainMenu and ContextMenus

Microsoft was good enough to add simple API for adding icons to menus. I wrote a .NET wrapper for this API a couple of years ago, VistaMenu. Enough chit-chat, here’s how you use VistaMenu. It’s open source and works with Windows 98 – Windows 7.

7 Days of Windows 7

Join me tomorrow when I talk about Windows 7 progress bars. See the full list of articles in the series.

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