Monday, June 30, 2014

End the Bloodletting in Digital Visibility

Over the decade I've been working in web design, I've come across multiple complaints from staff telling me a student or parent called about being unable to find something on their webpage. I come over to their office, so we can look at their webpage together, and we notice that the content is really there, so the next question is typically: how do we get people to notice this information?

I've seen a very common "knee-jerk" reaction to this issue that reminds me of the days of bloodletting. No, I'm not old enough to remember it firsthand, but if you will recall from your history books, doctors used to believe that the reason people were sick was because something bad was in their blood. If they removed the infected blood from a person's body, that would cure them of their ills.

Now, it's true, you likely do have a lot of bad stuff running through your blood when you are sick, but what else is in running through your veins at the same time? Good blood cells that are fighting off the bad bacteria and viruses. Those doctors didn't know that at the time, so they would continue to remove good and bad blood from their patients' bodies. Did that help? Sometimes, but they likely also killed many patients in the process. It was an inefficient solution.

Archaic Solution for Digital Visibility

I often see similar solutions when it comes to making content more visible to users of websites. Web maintainers are constantly told to do the following to make content more visible:
This is really important information. I mean, important. Like, come on now. You need to read this!
    Okay, well, that didn't work. Let's try:
    This is really important information. I mean, important. LIKE, COME ON NOW. You need to read this! 
      No, still didn't work. Let's try:
      ***This is really important information. I mean, important. LIKE, COME ON NOW. You need to read this!***
        On occasion, this seems to cure the problem, right? You seem to be getting fewer questions about it which also seems to prove that your technique worked. As you can see from the above usage of bold, italics, underline, color, font size, and extra characters, you may have solved the visibility problem of one portion of your content, but you may have created potentially many others.

        What else might be happening? Users are now calling that they can't find some other content that you and I both know is on the same page as the content we just fixed.

        Why is this Not the Solution?

        What common purpose do all these techniques shown in the above examples actually have on your page? All of the above techniques are merely aesthetic modifications. Granted, when we think about aesthetics, we think about what we see with our eyes, visual cues to direct our brains to pay attention to specific content. However, if there are multiple regions of content applying these techniques, our brains can only focus on the content temporarily, as they notice another region and then another, and may not record this information into memory.

        Your content is going through a visibility war. Each piece is now in competition with the next piece of content. From an accessibility point of view, this is very bad for users with permanent or temporary mental disabilities (see Simulations of Mental Disabilities), such as attention deficit disorder or TV combined with a screaming child. And considering these modifications are for people who can see, what purpose does font size or color have for catching a blind person's attention?

        The Modern Solution for Digital Visibility

        This isn't a design issue, this is a content issue. That is, you need to rethink how you write your content before resolving that the issue is aesthetic. Here are some tips for making your content more visible.

        Page Flow

        Your users should be able to easily scan your page top-down for information. If they pop around on the page, they will lose focus.
        1. Be clear and concise, and keep your paragraphs short.
        2. Turn your content into consumable (small) chunks of information.
        3. Use tables and lists over paragraphs to make content easier to understand.
        4. Separate your consumable content with short headings for easy scanning and comprehension.
        5. Keep It Simple


        Your users need to be able to understand what you are saying. This goes beyond spelling and grammar.
        1. If your audience for this page is external, avoid using jargon that external audiences will not understand.
        2. If jargon is needed, define jargon after you have led users to your content with commonly understood terms.
        3. When speaking to a general audience (i.e., parents and potential students), make sure your content is readable at a sixth grade level.
        4. Summarize complex content first before introducing such content, if it is required on your page.

        Content For Your Users

        Think about who is reading your content, their personas. Each page your create must serve a purpose for your target audience(s).
        1. Change the purpose of content from what you want to see on the page to what your audience wants to see.
        2. Cut any content that does not serve a valuable purpose, that isn't benefits or value driven, or a call to action for your audience.
        3. Organize your content based on the importance of the information to your audience. 
        4. Write to your audience instead of using third person, so your audience can connect with your message.
        5. Keep the tone of your message upbeat, and rephrase your message in a way that makes "bad" news, or a negative call to action, look like "good" news, or a positive call to action.

        More Information

        We can't put everything and the kitchen sink in one blog post (similar to the issue with overloading web pages with content), or you would stop reading! However, if you need to reference more information, put it at the bottom of your page, so when your users do have the time to read, they will come back here and check out these valuable links.

        Simulations of Mental Disabilities

        These videos are simulations of how the environment can affect a person with a mental disability. A physical environment is no different from a virtual environment as both have sights and sounds. Web designers often talk about a layout being "too busy." Think about what you see and hear in these videos and how this may affect layout of content on a web page.

        Caution: These may trigger reactions for those with autism, Aspergers and other mental disabilities.