Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Instructional Text in the User Interface: Some Counterintuitive Implications of User Behaviors

How people use instructional text ...

"Introducing User Assistance

User assistance occurs within an action context—the user doing something with an application—and should appear in close proximity to the focus of that action—that is, the application it supports. The optimal placement of user assistance, space permitting, is in the user interface itself. We typically call that kind of user assistance instructional text. But when placing user assistance within an application as instructional text, we must modify conventional principles of good information design to accommodate certain forces within an interactive user interface. This column, User Assistance, talks about how the rules for effective instruction change when creating instructional text for display within the context of a user interface.

User Behaviors and Their Implications for Instructional Text

When designing user assistance—particularly instructional text within the context of an application—we should keep the following typical user behaviors in mind:

• When users are processing information on a computer screen, their flow of focus is the same as when they process information on a printed page. For example, in English, readers scan from the upper left to the lower right and read from left to right and top to bottom; in Arabic, people read from right to left and top to bottom.

• When using an application, users are motivated to take action, and their focus is easily drawn to action objects such as menus, buttons, and text fields.

• Once an action object or other visual element on a page has drawn a user’s focus downstream in the focus flow, it is difficult to redirect it back upstream. In other words, if something initially draws a user’s attention to the middle of a page, it is far more likely that the user will continue across and down as opposed to going back up the page. This is especially true if there are additional action objects downstream.
While we intuitively expect such behaviors on the part of users, I have, in fact, observed them time and time again in usability testing. However, these user behaviors lead to some implications for user assistance design that might seem counterintuitive, as follows:

• Do not introduce required conceptual information before a user engages in activities that require those concepts.

• Do not explain business rules or constraints before the user encounters their constraining effects."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]


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