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
The explosion of information that analysts and executives must consume, as well as the increasing variety of sources from which that information comes, has boosted the popularity of information dashboards. Modeled after the dashboard of a car or airplane—which informs its operator about the status and operation of the vehicle they’re controlling at a glance—dashboard user interfaces provide a great deal of useful information to users at a glance. Typically, the role of an information dashboard is to quickly inform users and, thus, enable them to take immediate action.
For example, a sales executive might use a dashboard to compare current sales levels to plan or levels at the same time last year, as well as to see the current volume of orders in the sales pipeline—that is, orders his salespeople are working on, but have not yet closed. Using that same dashboard, he could compare that information across the various sales regions and respond quickly if indicators showed a potential problem brewing in a particular region or a general slow-down across the enterprise. Read More
Many of us are more comfortable communicating in words than in pictures. For example, user assistance writers are by nature and training writers, so they understand words and are adept at using word processing and publishing tools. Writers use lexicentric tools not only for creating and delivering content, but also as cognitive tools—that is, tools that help them think more clearly and efficiently. Thus, a user assistance writer might create a user-task matrix or take advantage of a word processor’s outline view when creating or evaluating a document’s structure.
However, we could also use a number of visual techniques and tools—not only for generating content, but also as cognitive and analysis tools. Unfortunately, these visual methods and their respective tools do not get much attention, and many writers don’t use them with the same comfort level they do tools that let them manipulate words. As Figure 1 shows, some writers hold onto their lexicentric world view, sometimes to their detriment. Read More