Adding to Your Editorial Tool Kit: Understanding Psychology Behind Rules for Online Design

Date: Monday, February 28, 2011
Forum speaker: Jeff Johnson, Ph.D.
Forum organizer: Jim Norrena
Summary notes: Ann Marie Aubin

Author and designer Jeff Johnson visited the Bay Area Editors' Forum to discuss the complex (and surprisingly intuitive) ways we as humans interact with Web pages. Author of GUI Bloopers, volumes 1 and 2, Johnson explained that our brains are hardwired to seek out and interpret information in a particular way.

Think of the mind as you would a computer hard disk: what is stored in long-term memory (the past) is what runs the computer "in the background." We don't think about it. However, a task you're working on in a given moment involves short-term memory (the present). Humans are generally able to handle 3-5 short-term thought processes at once. You can pay attention to the TV show you're watching, keep an eye on the kids, and pay bills all at one time. But you can't do many things at once using long-term memory—it's very hard to be fondly remembering summers at Grandma's while writing your master's thesis on foreign policy.

For the purist copyeditors in the audience, Johnson's statement that "reading is unnatural" caused an immediate stir.

Johnson explained that humans are pre-wired for learning language. Just about everyone learns some form of language at a very early age. That's unconscious learning. We aren't forcing what we discover into our minds, we're assimilating it.

After about age 13, our ability to learn new languages diminishes greatly. What was once easily learned and stored in our long-term memory becomes instead an exercise that takes a great deal of conscious effort, or short-term memory. Conscious learners (for instance, adults learning to speak a second language) must sound out phonemes in an effort to force the information into long-term memory.

Reading, on the other hand, is not a natural process. Many people never learn to read well, or even at all. Often, those who can grasp fundamental reading skills find that they do not retain much of what they read. They're so focused on sounding out and trying to remember that the content of the material takes a backseat.

As editors, it's important to understand how to best serve our readers. We must keep in mind that not everyone reads well or that many of our audience may speak English as a second language. With this in mind, we can tailor a written work to include readers with diverse skill sets.

Johnson said that even the most polished Website will suffer with the use of "geek speak." Editors should strive to communicate clearly, rather than with complicated and unfamiliar jargon.

Johnson explained that human psychology plays a huge role in how we see information that we'll then explore and utilize.

For instance, have you visited a Website that you found difficult to navigate? What made your experience with those sites unsatisfactory? Was the user interface non-intuitive? Or was the text laid out in a way that made it easy to find what you were looking for? Were the links you needed (and expected to find, say, in the upper right), actually positioned on the opposite side? Perhaps the text color was pale yellow on a light orange background, making it impossible to read comfortably. These are elements of design that are critical for making a Website useful, convenient, and one you would return to.

But what's wrong with pale yellow text on an orange background? If you're selling Florida fun-in-the-sun vacation packages, that color scheme might seem just right! Johnson illustrated to us exactly why our intuition about our funky color scheme might not work. He showed numerous example slides of how our eyes play tricks on us. Over and over, he surprised the BAEF audience with our own faulty perceptions of color and tone.

By keeping in mind that humans follow predictable patterns when scanning for information, we can be better editors. Remember that we expect certain page functions to be accessible from conventional locations and will instinctively search for what we want in places where we have found it before.

It's a lot like recognizing faces. Why do you recognize someone you've seen before from a crowd of a hundred faces? When you meet someone, neurons fire in your brain in a particular way. When you see that face again, the same neurons fire, resulting in recognition. But what if you see that familiar person in a non-familiar place?—for instance, you see your psychology teacher shopping for shoes at Walmart. There's a disjointed moment where your mind struggles to reconcile the familiar neuron pattern in a very different context. It stops you for a moment.

You do not want your Webpage to create that disjointed moment for users. Thus, Web designers use color, icons, and even briefly "wiggling" images to signal to users that this is a familiar place, making their experience a smooth one that requires very little conscious thought to navigate.

What about today's mobile and tablet computing? Do the design rules change when we're experiencing text on an iPhone or iPad? Johnson pointed out that reading occurs only in the fovea (hi-resolution center of your visual field), which is quite small. The rest of your visual field "cannot read." While reading—and at most other times as well—the eyes move constantly at about 3 times per second. When you're reading text on a page or a screen, the fovea covers only a word or two at a time. It doesn't matter whether you're reading on an iPad, iPhone, computer screen, or paper.

While not every editor is also a designer, it's important that we all understand design elements. Knowing that many parts create the whole of a Webpage (or any project) helps us produce the text that will make the Web experience complete.

Jeff Johnson, Ph.D. is principal consultant at UI Wizards, Inc., a product usability consultancy. After earning B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale and Stanford Universities, he worked as a UI designer and implementer, engineer manager, usability tester,and researcher at Cromemco, Xerox, US West, Hewlett-Packard Labs, and Sun Microsystems. Jeff has taught at Stanford University, Mills College, and the University of Canterbury. He has written articles and chapters on a variety of topics in human-computer interaction, and is author of the books GUI Bloopers, Web Bloopers, GUI Bloopers 2.0, and Designing with the Mind in Mind

If you're interested, Johnson recommends his two-part supplementary article that discusses certain issues further:
"Updating Our Understanding of Perception and Cognition" - Part 1
"Updating Our Understanding of Perception and Cognition" - Part 2

Previous BAEF forums with Jeff Johnson:
Web Bloopers, Part 1: Avoiding Common Design Mistakes
Web Bloopers, Part 2: Avoiding Common Text Errors

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Ann Marie Aubin works as an editor in San Francisco. Visit her website



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