Tables get a bad rap—especially in the Web world where, once upon a time, Web developers misused them for HTML layout. But tables are still very useful for the purpose for which they were originally intended—a way to show relationships among discrete data points. From a user assistance perspective, we deal with tables in two contexts:
user assistance—Tables can present information or instructions in our documentation.
user interfaces—Tables can display information within a user interface itself.
In this column, I’ll review some of the basic principles of good table design from an information developer’s perspective, then discuss their visual design and interactivity. These principles and my examples provide the bare essentials of table design. When designing tables, a key information design objective is keeping them simple, so if you start needing more than this column provides, you might be making things unnecessarily complicated for your users. Read More
A recent Alertbox by Jakob Nielsen, “Thinking Aloud: The #1 Usability Tool,” reinforced the usefulness of the thinking-aloud protocol as a great usability testing approach. I couldn’t agree more. But there is a big difference between someone’s thinking out loud about a task they are doing and someone’s voicing their opinion about a design. The first is very valuable; the second is so-so at best and dangerous at worst.
Here is the kind of data you want to get from a user who is thinking aloud:
“I want to do…”
“I’m looking at the UI, and I think it does…”
‘Hmm, that’s not what I expected; I thought it was going to…”
“That took longer than I expected.”
In short, you want to learn how a user sees her task and how she is making sense of a user interface in terms of that task. Read More
Many applications must gather information from users. At their simplest, such transactions employ dialog boxes or brief forms. Examples include sign-in screens—Who are you and do you have permission to be here?—and printer setups—What is the page size and do you want single-sided or double-sided pages? Others are quite complex, such as helping a user prepare his income tax return. We can measure complexity by the number of questions we ask or the logical branching we use. For example, the question What OS do you use? might have one set of follow-up questions if the answer is Mac and another if it is PC.
When I find myself designing an application that is complex, either in terms of its length or its logical dependencies, my natural instinct is to take a wizard approach. Wizards are cool; forms are dull. Product managers love wizards because they are so Web 2.0. Developers like wizards because they involve more programming expertise than just cranking out forms. Read More