Don’t Click It

“How hard is it to break with our clicking habits? What happens if we remove the essential element of navigation from an interface which we are accustomed to? Does it change our behaviour of navigation? Is this change for good or for bad? What do we gain from it? Do we miss The Click at all? Does this have any influence on our perception of the interface? Is clicking really rooted that deeply in us, that we cannot resist it?…”

Interesting experiment – a web site with an entirely click-free interface.


Text Prefs

Message Web Design has created a unique way to survey users’ online text preferences.

We have created an easy-to-use web application which allows users to adjust an on-screen display until they find the text to be easiest to read. They can adjust the font, size, line height and column width – the major contributing factors in legibility.

Once they’re happy with the display they can submit their text preferences to our database, where they will start to build up a large and detailed statistical picture.

Interesting. Very novel. I’m sure the results will… uh-oh:

Many designers have their own ideas about what constitutes ‘readable’ text, but much of this wisdom seems to be based on tried-and-tested rules from the world of print. While researching articles on the subject they often seemed to restate concepts I first heard twenty years ago!

We want to put some hard facts into the subject, rather than rely on anecdotal evidence and received wisdom from the book publishing world….Our goal is to create a report enabling us to state, from a position of knowledge, some hard facts about what constitutes ‘readable’ text on the web.

So, Message gets +1 for creativity, but -1 for faulty assumptions and expectations.

First, for the record, research on online text readability does in fact go back to the print era, but there is plenty of modern research on it as well.

But more important is the (apparent) flawed assumption that a user survey alone will provide the best, or even valid, picture of what constitutes readable text on the web. Readable text is a very loaded phrase that is inclusive of very many things, among them:

    Legibility – this is not the same as readability.

    Text color and background – Related to legibility. Research has shown that black on slightly off-white offers faster reading speed than black on pure white, for instance.

    Audience age – Different ages prefer different font faces/styles/sizes.

    Audience environment – This is a big one. What percentage of users taking this survey are using 15″ LCD screens with ClearType enabled? How can one scientifically group such a user with another who took the test using a 19″ CRT?

    Content – Users prefer different line length/font size depending on how technical or casual the content is.

None of these issues, central to the core of what defines readable, are gathered in this survey (at least for me; at this writing I was never asked to provide any information about myself or my viewing environment before or after submitting my preferences.)

I wonder how Message will use their results. Surely, they’ll be able to define a bell-curve like range for their parameters, but even that can be a dangerous thing to apply as a generality when designing websites. If the company were to use the results of this survey, with most participants linking in from blogs, emails, etc., to design a site for a very narrowly defined audience, well… it’s easy to see where things could go wrong.

The main thing missing is a metric of how one defines readable – to me, the concept of a user’s preference is too unscientific and vague. To make matters messier, users are notorious for not understanding what the difference is between preferred and best.

Consider the following overly-simplistic example: If shown pictures of a group of cars, and asked to rate the one I prefer, I’d probably choose a Lamborghini. But if my metric for choosing was gas mileage and insurance premiums, I’d probably go with the Prius.

Same with usability. When you try to determine what constitutes readable, you must first define your metric. Is speed the main goal? How about information retention? The two can be mutually exclusive. Designers would use tradeoffs to prioritize questions such as these, and therefore by definition, “readable text” can be a fluid concept for different audiences.

Having said all that, head on over to Text Prefs and give it a shot anyway. We’ll have to be careful to not over-generalize the results, but the information should be interesting nonetheless.


Adj. -
Relating to a major writing disorder that is characterized by repeated episodes of manic posting and depressive (light) posting.

Ety. – Dual. ‘Blog’, Sl., from Interwebianus Mamas Basementia, meaning ‘record of one desperate in some way for attention’; ‘Polar’, adj., from Realitus, meaning ‘having two opposing extremes’.

Content will be restarting in earnest. Stay tuned.

Galaxy hopping on a new UI

Most of you know I’m a casual to semi-serious gamer… (Yes, I hear you… “Ah-the-nerd-picture-is-complete-now-monkey-boy.”) Ahem. Anyway, ever since I obtained the Wii few months ago my hands have been glued to the controllers.

There’s something fascinating about encountering a new interface for the first time. Nintendo has taken a large risk in expecting users to learn a brand new way to interface with the console. Gone are the arrow keys, only to be replaced with the Wiimote, which, depending on the software, controls the interface as you physically move the controller up, down, toward, away, side-to-side, or roll it right-to-left.

Rather than enter into the XBox/PlayStation/PC realm of muscle car-like computing power and 3d rendering perfection, the Wii is attempting to blaze a new trail that brings focus back on gameplay. The gamble is that Nintendo has asked their customers to abandon the conventions that they have become quite used to, and re-learn a new way of interfacing with their favorite titles and characters.

A usability research company (Serco Usability Services) found that the Wii offered an opportunity to learn more about HCI. Some initial analysis led them to conclude:

So this novelty may be a double-edged sword… On the one hand it means that there are multiple new ways of allowing users to interact with games, which is a whole new world of fun; a massive potential. But, on the other hand, there are no conventions yet for how users expect the controller’s actions to be used in a game… The last time we remember such a blank canvas for interactive design was in the early days of the internet. Pages were colourful, flashing and had different fonts. Standards… were not in place… Sites were exciting, but hard to use. However, gradually, over the years, the fun of the web remained, but design conventions were derived from the sites that people found easiest to use (and consequently used most).

The company conducted a usability study on the Wii, and their results included the following:

In general, there is a tendency among users to assume that the two elements of the controls are the same as a regular controller, but chopped in half; the nunchuck is the left side of a controller; the Wiimote the right. It’s as if despite the conscious feeling that the controls are completely revolutionary, the user’s motor memory is not fooled by the hype! It treats them the same as if they were a ‘normal’ controller.

Time will tell if Nintendo’s customers stick with the new interface. As of this writing, Wiis are flying off the shelves. But the true test of success with any interface comes with widespread acceptance of it. If customers continue to buy Wii software titles, and the software companies continue to produce them, then Nintendo will be able to declare success.

Serco Wii usability article
Wii web browser usability review
UPA article on Wii usability (membership only)
Super Mario Galaxy review written by yours truly (oh yes, I went there)

Baseball pitch infographics

Lokesh Dhakar has illustrated a series of diagrams showing the trajectories of variously-pitched baseballs.

The illustrations are simple and clean, and yet still communicate a large amount of information – movement in three dimensions, ball orientation at pitch point, and speed. (Note the color gradients from yellow to red to indicate different speeds.)

Check it out.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

As an avid hiker and a technical communicator, I was totally geeked by this awesome interactive piece by the New York Times on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Combining a well-written storyline with a great technical presentation, the piece covers Tom Bissell’s experience as he summited the lofty African peak. Using a Google Earth-based 3-D timeline, each stop along the journey shows Bissell’s heart rate and blood oxygenation, along with a brief video diary entry.

This is a textbook example of the appropriate way to use technology to enhance communication. It would have been very easy to get carried away with Flash here, and have tons of unnecessary bells and whistles. However, the first-person narrative is the most important feature of the piece, and the multimedia-based information is kept peripherally tasteful – only used to keep the audience centered and engaged in the storyline.


Via Modern Hiker