Bad UI: Tiny Pop Up Menus

In the last couple years a new app design trend has emerged, little pop up menus that don’t take advantage of the screen real estate. You probably know what I’m talking about, you press a button, a little window pops up and you have to scroll to find what you need. (The “Open In” screen on iOS is a good example.)

I will admit that on paper this kind of makes sense, especially on smaller screens like the iPhone or iPad. If you press something and the whole view is replaced, it could be confusing to “muggles.” (Un-technologically inclined people) “Am I still in the app?” “How do I get back to my app?” The design language of iOS tries to be as natural as possible to accommodate even the most novice of users. For example, when you press on an app, it zooms you into it from the home screen. It tries to subtly make the user understand what’s happening. The problem with the small pop up menu is that while they may not confuse a user, they also detract from the experience. I should note that if all the information that needs to be presented can be shown in the little pop up I’m fine with that, it’s when I have to scroll to find what could easily be presented as one screen that bothers me.

A Couple More Examples

The “read-it-later” service Pocket and Squarespace, the company that powers this website, are two of the most egregious offenders.

I love using Squarespace but their use of tiny pop up menus are very annoying. I don’t understand why the pop up window has to be so small. Their service doesn’t work on a touch screen so anyone using their service is using a traditional computer. It just makes me scroll to find what I need, rather than presenting everything on one pane.

Pocket is even worse.

I sure do love browsing my tags through this tiny window. Sure, I can search but I might not know the tag I'm looking for.


There is no one solution that would solve this problem on both iOS and OS X. Customizability would be a big help in many applications. If you could choose what shows up first it would be less of a problem but I feel like this is the equivalent of “putting lipstick on a pig”. I firmly believe something better has to come along. On iOS, perhaps a cards based UI would work better, it would still convey that this is a separate entity from the app. Or maybe a small icon grid like the Apple Watch that has you slide your finger over small icons and they zoom in on the one you’re selecting. Or a perennial UI favourite of mine, use a Launch Center Pro approach. Allow the user to set up folders that when you press and hold on show a list of icons you can press. I’m not saying any of these approaches would work with the iOS design language but I do think something has to change.

On the Mac the solution is much easier, just increase the size of the pop up window.

Final Words

App design is subject to trends, just like any form of design. People want new and shiny over old and dependable. I feel like the tiny menu trend should have never happened from a usability stand point. I’m very much looking forward to the next evolution of app design that replaces it.

Agree? Disagree? Comment Below.

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