UX Crash Course: Stupid Question 15 of 30

We’re half-way through! And it’s time to get into some practical details about the structure of your design. So let’s answer:

“How many menu options is too many?”


Just starting the Crash Course? Start here!


Every UX designer will have this conversation eventually, and there is a good chance that you’ll have it with someone who doesn’t do UX.

A giant menu is usually a sign of terrible information architecture. A small menu is usually a sign of a simple purpose. But what if you’re in the middle?

How big should the menu be?

I’d bet the farm that you’re already thinking of the wrong answer. If you think that you know what “wrong answer” most people are thinking of, you’re probably thinking of a different wrong answer.


Yup. Read on, kids. 


The stupid answer:

There was a magical study once that said people can remember 7 things, plus/minus two. So you shouldn’t use more than 7.



The real answer:

First of all, the “7 things” idea, called Miller’s Law, is not true. I am tempted to call it a myth.

In real life, the number is more like 3-4 things, and it can be different depending on what type of information you’re trying to remember.

BUT… that’s not the right answer either!

The “right” number of menu options has nothing to do with how many things people can remember at all!


Why this isn’t a stupid question:
It’s not about memory. It’s about recognition and choice.

It is very misleading to argue about the number of menu options a user can remember because a user never actually has to remember the menu.

They can just look at it.

If users had to read every menu option and then look away and choose the best one from their memory, then memory would matter.

In real life, a user will read through the menu options until they see one that looks good, and then they will click it. Even if the “best” option is after that in the list.

That’s why items on the left get clicked more than options on the right. If the first (left) option looks good, why keep looking?


Recognition is about clarity and structure. 

The user should be able to easily see or guess which menu option will take them to the things they want.

Even if your site is 10 levels deep, as long as the user can quickly and easily understand where they are, how they got there, and what to choose next, your menu architecture might be fantastic.

Protip: You can see the most popular menu options in analytics. You can optimize your menu by listing the options in order of popularity (For most languages, that means left-to-right, or top-to-bottom)!


More options create less choices. Not more.

In psychology and decision science, there is an important idea called The Paradox of Choice.

The more options a user has, the more difficult it is to choose one, and the more often people will choose nothing.

i.e. — they will leave your site/app instead of choosing at all.

Nothing is always an option. So is the Back button. So is hating your website and stomping their feet and never ever ever getting back together.

In theory, the perfect menu has zero options, so the user doesn’t have to make a choice at all!

However, if you know what you want, like finding your language or home country on a list, then you just pick one and get on with your life, regardless of how many there are. (That’s recognition, not choice.)

Your main concern is not the number of options. Your main concern is: how hard is it to choose or recognize one from the list?

But odds are, if you have 20 options in your menu, the user is not your priority.


Tomorrow we will answer: “Should I show the sub-menu on hover, click, or click-through?”