Posted by Michael Gaigg
The original motivation for this article stems from a recent discussion with a customer who argued that UI elements must not be redundant, i.e. there must not be two links on any single page pointing to the same target.
His argument was that the link to the contact form - which was embedded in the content - already exists in the header, thus replicating the other link.
To me it seemed clear that this "redundancy is bad" theorem doesn't make sense. But how could I argue the opposite?
Be aware of the "Rule"
Over the time I've seen many so-called "rules" appear, most of them are really hard to counter and battle or even detect in the first place. Remember the "Everything-needs-to-be-reached-within-three-clicks" rule? Says who? Why? So the user can reach any target without dropping off? It's not about the amount, it's about the motivation to get there, it's like a bicyclist that needs more strokes uphill but still has enough motivation to get there.
I call those rules Lazy-Designer rule, or should I say, don't know better designer?
What is Redundancy?
Redundancy is the amount of information used to transmit a message minus the amount of information of the actual message. One might call this "wasted space" or "overhead".
In information theory the amount of information is described in number of bits and data compression is used to reduce or eliminate unwanted redundancy.
But communication over noisy channels with limited capacity pose possibilities of data loss and that's why checksums are added for the purpose of error detection.
Simply put, the basis of communication is sending and receiving a message from a sender over a channel to a recipient. Error detection is the detection of errors caused by noise or other impairments during transmission from the transmitter to the receiver.
Error correction is the detection of errors and reconstruction of the original data. This reconstruction can happen in either of two ways:
- Automatic repeat request (ARQ), sometimes also referred to as backward error correction, basically a request for retransmission of data until the correct receipt can be verified.
- Forward error correction (FEC), where the additional data (redundant data) that was added is used by the receiver to reconstruct the original information.
Translation into UI Design
The objective of user interface design (=sender) is to communicate a message via the internet (=channel) to the user (=recipient).
Importance of the Message
Without going into details of quantity (information theory and entropy) or quality (importance of a message) it can be said in general that the better message (=content) follows the lesser is more and more precise is better recommendations.
Methods of Error Detection
But how can one assure that the message has actually arrived? That the user found what the designer has intended to present? Or in other words, how can I (=designer) detect that a user has NOT received the message (=error detection) and what can be done to correct (=error correction) it?
- Traffic Log Analysis can help finding patterns in user behavior purely based on click-through rates and times.
- User Testing helps finding qualitative answers.
- A/B Tests compare alternative design choices and their effectiveness.
Methods of Error Correction
More important is how the UI can handle errors in data reception, i.e. the user "didn't get it".
- ARQ is almost impossible to implement. How would I know that the user missed our message? Maybe he/she simply wasn't interested (e.g. in clicking the 'contact us' link).
- FEC on the other hand seems to be a real alternative. Adding redundancy may help the recipient to overcome the missed message and despite having noise (ads, other UI elements, etc.) being able to continue the task in the most likely way the designer had intended to.
Like mentioned above, it seems natural to enhance the quality of content and balance the quantity between removing content (=data compression or unwanted redundancy) and adding content (=desired redundancy). It's like an intersection having two or more traffic lights (desired redundancy) but surely not traffic light hell like on the satiric image.
On a personal note
I wish Directv would ship all their receiver units with two remote controls. You can't imagine the sudden peace in our house since we ordered a second one. "Babe, where is f...in remote again?", "Will you finally shut down the volume honey?", "Come on, skip the commercials, or are you sleeping already?"
Posted by Michael Gaigg
When writing content for the web it is essential to speak the language of your users. Become a word detective, use google trends. Words are the basic elements of links, get them precisely right to provide strong information scent. Identify trends, don't invent them. Look at the evolution of language.
Get to the essence of the message! Stop 'waving' on your webpage ('Welcome to the webpage of our company. We are proud to blah-blah...').
Always remember that the user is in charge, the user is impatient, nasty, demanding, in a hurry and in control to spend its time somewhere else (according to Jakob Nielsen: 'Users spend most of their time on other sites'). Online marketing is about giving attention (versus offline marketing is about getting attention).
Design Guidelines for Content
- Make information easy to find with clear headings and meaningful sub-headings (not ‘clever’ ones).
- Break up the information into manageable pieces.
- Put the pieces in a logical order for your readers.
- Keep your sentences short and employ one idea per paragraph.
- Use the ‘inverted pyramid’ style: conclusion (context) first, results later.
- Talk to your readers. Use "you".
- Write in the active voice (most of the time).
- Put the action in the verb, not in the nouns.
- Use your readers' words.
- Use half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.
- Use bulleted lists where appropriate – for a list of items and for parallel "if, then" sentences.
- Employ scannable text like highlighted keywords.
See my blog entry for Best Practices for accessible Content
- Nielsen, J. (1997, 10 01). How Users Read on the Web. Alertbox: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html
- Quesenbery, W. (2008, 05). Usability doesn’t stop when you write the content. http://www.apogeehk.com/articles/Usability_doesnt_stop_when_you_write_the_content.html
Michael Gaigg is Lead UI Engineer in Esri's Professional Services Division.
He has been designing map applications for 15 years and is author and curator of UI Patterns for Maps.
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