14 May, 2008

Provide context or lose the reader

Readers need a sense of context, of their place within an organization of information. In paper documents this sense of "where you are" is a mixture of graphic and editorial organizational cues supplied by the graphic design of the book, the organization of the text, and the physical sensation of the book as an object. Electronic documents provide none of the physical cues we take for granted in assessing information. When we see a Web hypertext link on the page we have few cues to where we will be led, how much information is at the other end of the link, and exactly how the linked information relates to the current page. Even the view of individual Web pages is restricted for many users. Most Web pages don't fit completely on a standard office display monitor (800 x 600 pixels), and so there is almost always a part of the page that the user cannot see:

Web pages need to give the user explicit cues to the context and organization of information because only a small portion of any site (less than a page) is visible at one time:

As the Web page designer it is up to you to provide these functional and context cues.