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What Is a Context Menu?

By Alex Newth
Updated May 16, 2024
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Context menus are small menus that appear on computer screens, either on the desktop or in an application, usually in response to the user right-clicking an area. It is called a context menu because the menu changes according to the context, such as if a folder is open or a word is highlighted in an application. Some programs offer large shortcut menus, but this is usually avoided because larger menus are tedious to use and make it difficult to find a function that serves the user’s current situation. Shortcut menus will sometimes offer extra sections but, generally, there is only the one menu section.

A context menu is made to open from a user’s input, usually a right mouse click, but center clicks or holding the mouse button are also common. These menus show tools or options that are appropriate for the user’s current situation. For example, if the user has an icon in a folder highlighted, there may be options to send the icon to the trashcan or make a duplicate of the icon. If a word in a word processing program is highlighted, there will usually be options to copy and paste the word.

The number of options a context menu holds is typically limited to 10 or fewer commands relevant to the user’s current state. By having a smaller menu, it is easier for the user to look through the commands. It also makes it easier to see the options, because the user doesn't have to look through a much larger variety of options that may not be relevant at the time. Most menus also do not include, or only have one or two, pull-right menus, the menus that appear when the user highlights a section with a right arrow.

Other context menus are large and include nearly all the available options a program offers. These menus may also have several pull-right menus at their disposal. This type of context menu usually is the same, regardless of context, and displays a much wider variety of commands. This menu is useful if the user memorizes the menu and knows where each command is, but it can be awkward to use initially.

Context menus, by programming standards, should not have commands exclusive to the context menu. Some users do not like using context menus or may want to use the commands from the toolbar. This also hides commands that a user may never find, rendering an application useless or less valuable.

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