What is the rationale behind the Stack Exchange menu system?
I find it annoying and counterintuitive. Should the front page menu and the question menu be merged into one?
The discrepancy between the front page and the questions page comes from the fact they are not, and are not meant to be, one in the same. One is meant as a general landing page that gives a taste of the site - it has an excerpt of questions along with a much more occupied sidebar that includes meta, ads, and chat (slightly different for beta sites). Above all, this is the page that almost any new user will first land on. Meanwhile, the questions list is just focused on questions, and also meant to access the whole set of questions. It's geared more towards the power users or at least those who have gotten a taste of the site.
So, onto the parts of your screencapture.
The front page isn't any of those sections. It stands to reason that highlighting any of them would be misrepresentative of its function. It is not the Questions section because it only has an excerpt of the questions, and at the bottom it even tells you to go to the Questions section to see more. On the actual Questions section, you'd just get pagination navigation.
This is because of the goal of each of the sections is different. Remember, the front page is only there to show you the recent activity on the site as an excerpt. Its focus on activity is why the timestamp links to the most recent activity on the question, and also why all of its sort options (
featured, and all the hotness variants, as well as Stack Overflow's
interesting) are focused on activity level. It's all geared towards the illustration of "What's happening now?". What questions just got posted, what just got answered, what cool bounties are available right now.
The Questions section on the other hand, it is meant to give you access to the full library of questions. So it has things like
unanswered which are measured across all of the site's history. It also has the
newest sort and pagination on its
featured sorts to aid in seeing the complete picture.
Originally, the questions section didn't have an
unanswered filter - adding it has proven beneficial to the ability to browse and search through it. There had even been plans to completely phase out the top-level "Unanswered" navigation in favor of "Review". It's a recognized point of text duplication that we'll probably fix down the road.
In summary, the rationale is that we have two separate goals to accomplish, which is why we have two separate pages. Their designs are intended to work with the intents of those pages. Is it necessarily perfect? Perhaps not. It's open to change now and then (I reassert the aforementioned plan to phase out the Unanswered section). But here's at least the rationale of the current design pattern.
I'm with you on that. The homepage is actually "Questions -> active", and that should be shown when a new user first lands on the homepage (Questions marked as active, active tab marked as active).
I don't really care for the "Unanswered" menu item but the "unanswered" tab on Questions is kind of redundant. But it's the same across the Stack Exchange network and I don't see any of this changing, as it will take a lot of work for something that is annoying but not really a problem.
I've introduced a couple of non technical friends to different Stack Exchange sites and they did had some trouble navigating, especially in the first hour. The general user experience for any Stack Exchange site feels geared towards technical people, stuck to the era where it was only StackOverflow (or just the original triad).
There was one major redesign since then, the recent update to the profile page. I wouldn't call it an improvement, but it does prove that the Stack Exchange people are actively working on changing major parts of the interface. And of course there are small interface improvements at each new build.
What you should do is:
You will need major community support to change the menu, established sites generally don't like changing their navigation elements, as there's always the possibility of massively losing members. The "if it's not broken, don't fix it" principle is especially true for user experience, after a couple of months of using the site I know exactly where everything is and although I fully agree with you that the menu system is counter intuitive I don't really know if I will welcome a major change, which will mean that I will have to re learn where everything is and what it does.
But with enough support from the community, any change to the system is possible. Go for it.