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Original author: 
Thomas Joos

  

As a mobile UI or UX designer, you probably remember the launch of Apple’s first iPhone as if it was yesterday. Among other things, it introduced a completely touchscreen-centered interaction to a individual’s most private and personal device. It was a game-changer.

Today, kids grow up with touchscreen experiences like it’s the most natural thing. Parents are amazed by how fast their children understand how a tablet or smartphone works. This shows that touch and gesture interactions have a lot of potential to make mobile experiences easier and more fun to use.

Challenging Bars And Buttons

The introduction of “Human Interface Guidelines” and Apple’s App Review Board had a great impact on the quality of mobile applications. It helped a lot of designers and developers understand the core mobile UI elements and interactions. One of Apple’s popular suggestions, for instance, is to use UITabBar and UINavigationBar components — a guideline that many of us have followed, including me.

In fact, if you can honestly say that the first iPhone application you designed didn’t have any top or bottom bar elements, get in touch and send over a screenshot. I will buy you a beer and gladly tweet that you were ahead of your time.

My issue with the top and bottom bars is that they fill almost 20% of the screen. When designing for a tiny canvas, we should use every available pixel to focus on the content. In the end, that’s what really matters.

In this innovative industry, mobile designers need some time to explore how to design more creative and original interfaces. Add to that Apple’s frustrating rejection of apps that “think outside the box,” it is no surprise that experimental UI and UX designs such as Clear and Rise took a while to see the light of day. But they are here now. And while they might be quite extreme and focused on high-brow users and early adopters, they show us the great creative potential of gesture-driven interfaces.

Rise and Clear
Pulling to refresh feels very intuitive.

The Power Of Gesture-Driven Interfaces

For over two years now, I’ve been exploring the ways in which gestures add value to the user experience of a mobile application. The most important criterion for me is that these interactions feel very intuitive. This is why creative interactions such as Loren Brichter’s “Pull to Refresh” have become a standard in no time. Brichter’s interaction, introduced in Tweetie for iPhone, feels so intuitive that countless list-based applications suddenly adopted the gesture upon its appearance.

Removing UI Clutter

A great way to start designing a more gesture-driven interface is to use your main screen only as a viewport to the main content. Don’t feel obliged to make important navigation always visible on the main screen. Rather, consider giving it a place of its own. Speaking in terms of a virtual 2-D or 3-D environment, you could design the navigation somewhere next to, below, behind, in front of, above or hidden on top of the main view. A dragging or swiping gesture is a great way to lead the user to this UI element. It’s up to you to define and design the app.

What I like about Facebook and Gmail on iOS, for instance, is their implementation of a “side-swiping” menu. This trending UI concept is very easy to use. Users swipe the viewport to the right to reveal navigation elements. Not only does this make the app very content-focused, but accessing any section of the application takes only two to three touch interactions. A lot of apps do far worse than that!

Sideswipe Menu
Facebook and Gmail’s side-swiping menu

In addition to the UI navigation, your app probably also supports contextual interactions, too. Adding the same two or three buttons below every content item will certainly clutter the UI! While buttons might seem to be useful triggers, gestures have great potential to make interaction with content more intuitive and fun. Don’t hesitate to integrate simple gestures such as tapping, double-tapping and tapping-and-holding to trigger important interactions. Instagram supports a simple double-tap to perform one of its key features, liking and unliking a content item. I would not be surprised to see other apps integrate this shortcut in the near future.

An Interface That Fits

When designing an innovative mobile product, predicting user behavior can be very difficult. When we worked with Belgium’s Public Radio, my team really struggled with the UI balance between music visualization and real-time news. The sheer number of contextual scenarios and preferences made it very hard to come up with the perfect UI. So, we decided to integrate a simple dragging gesture to enable users to adjust the balance themselves.

Radio+
By dragging, users can balance music-related content and live news.

This gesture adds a creative contextual dimension to the application. The dragging gesture does not take the user from one section (news or music) to another. Rather, it enables the user to focus on the type of content they are most interested in, without missing out on the other.

Think in Terms of Time, Dimension and Animation

What action is triggered when the user taps an item? And how do you visualize that it has actually happened? How fast does a particular UI element animate into the viewport? Does it automatically go off-screen after five seconds of no interaction?

The rise of touch and gesture-driven devices dramatically changes the way we design interaction. Instead of thinking in terms of screens and pages, we are thinking more in terms of time, dimension and animation. You’ve probably noticed that fine-tuning user interactions and demonstrating them to colleagues and clients with static wireframe screenshots is not easy. You don’t fully see, understand and feel what will happen when you touch, hold, drag and swipe items.

Certain prototyping tools, including Pop and Invision, can help bring wireframes to life. They are very useful for testing an application’s flow and for pinpointing where and when a user might get stuck. Your application has a lot more going on than simple back-and-forth navigation, so you need to detect interface bugs and potential sources of confusion as soon as possible. You wouldn’t want your development team to point them out to you now, would you?

InvisionApp
Invision enables you to import and link your digital wireframes.

To be more innovative and experimental, get together with your client first and explain that a traditional wireframe is not the UX deliverable that they need. Show the value of interactive wireframes and encourage them to include this in the process. It might increase the timeline and budget, but if they are expecting you to go the extra mile, it shouldn’t be a problem.

I even offer to produce a conceptual interface video for my clients as well, because once they’ve worked with the interactive wireframes and sorted out the details, my clients will often need something sexier to present to their internal stakeholders.

The Learning Curve

When designing gesture-based interactions, be aware that every time you remove UI clutter, the application’s learning curve goes up. Without visual cues, users could get confused about how to interact with the application. A bit of exploration is no problem, but users should know where to begin. Many apps show a UI walkthrough when first launched, and I agree with Max Rudberg that walkthroughs should explain only the most important interactions. Don’t explain everything at once. If it’s too explicit and long, users will skip it.

Why not challenge yourself and gradually introduce creative UI hints as the user uses the application? This pattern is often referred to as progressive disclosure and is a great way to show only the information that is relevant to the user’s current activity. YouTube’s Capture application, for instance, tells the user to rotate the device to landscape orientation just as the user is about to open the camera for the first time.

Visual Hints
Fight the learning curve with a UI walkthrough and/or visual hints.

Adding visual cues to the UI is not the only option. In the Sparrow app, the search bar appears for a few seconds, before animating upwards and going off screen, a subtle way to say that it’s waiting to be pulled down.

Stop Talking, Start Making

The iPhone ushered in a revolution in interactive communication. Only five years later, touchscreen devices are all around us, and interaction designers are redefining the ways people use digital content.

We need to explore and understand the potential of touch and gesture-based interfaces and start thinking more in terms of time, dimension and animation. As demonstrated by several innovative applications, gestures are a great way to make an app more content-focused, original and fun. And many gesture-based interactions that seem too experimental at first come to be seen as very intuitive.

For a complete overview of the opportunities for gestures on all major mobile platforms, check out Luke Wroblewski’s “Touch Gesture Reference Overview.” I hope you’re inspired to explore gesture-based interaction and intensify your adventures in mobile interfaces. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile. With interactive wireframes, you can iterate your way to the best possible experience. So, let’s stop talking and start making.

(al)

© Thomas Joos for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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GitHub’s new command-line-style search tools. Screenshot/Webmonkey.

Code sharing giant GitHub has taken the wraps off a new search bar that’s much more than just a search bar — it’s a command-line interface for navigating the website.

The new features are clearly aimed at those accustomed to working with Git via the command line. But even if you aren’t a terminal aficionado the new terminal-style tools in GitHub’s search bar are incredibly useful for quickly getting around the site — especially for keyboard navigation junkies since you can now navigate the site without ever taking your fingers off the keyboard.

To use the new command bar just type help and you’ll get a list of available commands. Most of the common things you’d want to do on GitHub — check in on a repo, view your notifications, create a new issue or see any pull requests on your projects — can now all be done from the search box/command line. Here are a few useful search operators:

  • View a user’s profile @username
  • Go to a repository user/repo
  • List a user’s repositories user/
  • List issues user/repo #
  • Search open issues user/repo #search term

As with any good command-line imitator, GitHub’s new search bar features tab completion, history and what the GitHub blog calls “smart filtering”. To browse your history for example, hit the up arrow key — just like you would working in the terminal.

For more details, check out the GitHub blog or head on over to GitHub and give the new command search bar a try.

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Editor’s Note: Smashing Magazine is happy to present this sample chapter from Theresa Neil’s new book Mobile Design Pattern Gallery: UI Patterns for iOS, Android and More, which provides solutions to common design challenges. We’re certain you’ll find the information useful for your next mobile project.

As I was waiting for a table at a local restaurant the other day, I flipped through a couple of the free classified papers. I was shocked to realize how dependent I’ve grown on three simple features that just aren’t available in the analog world: search, sort and filter.

AutoDirect and some of the other freebies are organized by category (like trucks, vans, SUVs) but others, like Greensheet, just list page after page of items for sale. I would actually have to read every single ad in the paper to find what I wanted. No thank you, I’ll use Craigslist on my phone instead.

But after taking a look at Craigslist mobile, it became obvious we could all benefit from some best practices around mobile search, sort and filter UI design. This chapter explores a dozen different ways to surface and refine the data your customers want.

Search Patterns

Before you ever try to design a search interface for any platform, buy and read these two books: Search Patterns: Design for Discovery by Peter Morevill and Jeffery Callendar, and Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success by Greg Nudelman.

Then take a look at these search patterns specific to mobile applications:

  • Explicit Search
  • Auto-Complete
  • Dynamic Search
  • Scoped Search
  • Saved & Recent
  • Search Form
  • Search Results

Explicit Search

Explicit search relies on an explicit action to perform the search and view results. That action might be to tap a search button on the screen, like Walmart, or on the keyboard, like Target. The results are typically displayed in the area below the search bar. Consider pairing an explicit search pattern with the auto-complete pattern.


Walmart uses a search button (Go) on the screen, Target uses the Search on the keyboard.


Target loading and then displaying search results.

Offer a clear button in the field and an option to cancel the search. Use feedback to show the search is being performed.

Auto-Complete

Probably the most useful search pattern that emerged in Web 2.0 is auto-complete. Typing will immediately surface a set of possible results, just tap on one to selected it and the search will be performed. Or continue typing your own criteria and then tap the explicit search button.


Android Marketplace (Google Play) and Netflix both use auto-complete

Ideally the results will be displayed immediately, but a progress indicator (searching…) should be used for system feedback. Netflix (above) uses an indicator in the search field, whereas Fidelity (below) displays one where the results will eventually be displayed.


Fidelity shows feedback while loading the auto-complete options.

TripAdvisor provides an enhanced auto-complete, grouping the results by popular destinations, hotels, restaurants. LinkedIn does something similar by showing direct connections first, then other people in LinkedIn.


TripAdvisor and LinkedIn group the suggested options.

Provide feedback if there could be a delay in displaying the results. Consider emphasizing the matching search text in the search results.

Dynamic Search

This pattern may also be called dynamic filtering. Entering text in the search field will dynamically (onkeypress) filter the data on the screen. Note, the examples may look similar to auto-complete but there is a different interation model. The dynamic search pattern is used to refine or whittle down a existing and visible list of objects. In these examples from BlackBerry App World and WorldMate on Android, apps and hotels, respectively, were already displayed on the page.


BlackBerry App World and WorldMate offer dynamic search for refining a big list of results.

Works well for refining constrained data sets, like an address book or personal media library, but may be impractical for searching large data sets from multiple sources.

Scoped Search

Sometimes it is easier (and faster) to get to the desired result by scoping the search criteria before performing the search. Google and Photobucket use different designs to the same end.


Google uses an overlay to present scope options, whereas Photobucket uses a dialog.

AllRecipes also lets you select criteria (or filters) before submitting the search. Dropbox defaults the initial scope to All, but you can switch it to Files or Folders before or after tapping the search button.


AllRecipes pushes the limit of scoping options, Dropbox keeps it simple with just 3.

Offer reasonable scoping options based on the data set. Three to six scoping options are plenty, consider a search form for advanced searching capabilities.

Saved & Recent

Successful mobile interfaces follow a basic usability maxim: respect the users effort. Saved and recent searches do this by making it easy to select from previous searches, instead of retyping the same keywords or search criteria.


eBay lets customers explicity save searches. Both eBay and Walmart implicity save customers’ most recent searches.

Other options to respect the users’ effort involve location based searching options like Trulia, and bar code searching, like PriceCheck by Amazon.


Trulia offers location based searching, Amazon offers 4 ways to search.


Google Shopper offers scan and speak search options and a full search history grouped by search date.

Saved searches typically require additional steps to name a search for later use, whereas recent searches are implicitly saved and surfaced. Consider which one will best serve your customers’ needs.

Search Form

This pattern is characterized by a separate form for entering search criteria, and an explicit search button.


Search forms on WorldMate and airbnb.


WholeFood’s recipe search allows customers to add multiple criteria, course, category, special diets and keywords.

Minimize the number of input fields. Implement OS specific input controls properly. Follow form design best practices (alignment, labels, size).

Search Results

Once a search is performed the results can be displayed in the same screen or on a dedicate results screen. Results may be displayed in a table or list, on a map or satellite, or as thumbnail images. Multiple view options can be used depending on the type of results and user preferences.


Kayak and Foursquare (webOS) show the results in a table.


airbnb shows the results in a list and offers a map view toggle.


Zappos offers a list view and alternate carousel view for browsing search results.

Lazy loading is a common technique to use so that some results will be displayed while the rest are being loaded. Many applications offer either a button to explicitly “view more results” or will automatically load more results when the screen is flicked.


eBay Motors and Best Buy.

Label the results with the number returned. Use lazy loading instead of paging. Apply a reasonable default sort order. Avoid paging tables, they break the natural interaction model for viewing information on a mobile device.

Sort

It is important to choose a reasonable default sort for displaying search results. A little common sense plus user validation is the best way to choose the default sort order. These patterns offer options for changing the default sort:

  • Onscreen Sort
  • Sort Selector
  • Sort Form

Onscreen Sort

When there are only a few sort options, an onscreen sort can provide a simple one tap solution. Placing the sort toggle at the top or bottom of the screen will depend on the other screen elements.

Target provides four sort options with a three toggle button. For the price sort option, they offer two choices: sort by price ascending and sort by price descending.


Expedia (older version) and Target iOS use onscreen sort.

Clearly show which option is selected or “on”. Consider the Sort Order Selector pattern if the option labels don’t fit nicely in a toggle button bar.

Sort Order Selector

The selector pattern is a good alternative to the onscreen sort. There are a number of different UI controls that can be used for selection, but consider the design guidelines for the OS you are designing for (ex. the menu is common for Android app, and the picker and actionsheet are common in iOS apps).


Walmart on Android uses the common menu control.

The option titles can be longer (more explicit) and more options can be displayed. Walmart places the sort button in proximity with the search field, wheras Kayak offers sort and filter options at the bottom of the screen.


Kayak on iOS uses the standard selector control.

OS neutral solutions include a simple combobox, like Target on Android, or an overlay menu, like Awesome Note.


Target on Android just uses a combobox. AwesomeNote uses an overlay.

Follow OS design conventions for choosing the selector control, or choose an OS neutral implementation. Clearly show which sort option is applied.

Sort Form

Some applications have consolidated the sort and filter options into one screen, typically titled “Refine”. This is the most effort intensive sort pattern requiring the user to open the form, select an option, and then apply the selection (by tapping “done” or “apply”).


Cars.com and eBay Classifieds.

Consider the more efficient sort option toggle or sort order selector patterns before choosing this design.

Filter

Large sets of data can require additional filtering, also called refining. Filtering relies on the user selecting criteria by which to refine the set of search results or a large set of objects. Common filtering patterns include:

  • Onscreen Filter
  • Filter Drawer
  • Filter Dialog
  • Filter Form

Also see the earlier search pattern, Scoped Search, for an optional pre-filtering technique.

Onscreen filter

Similar to the onscreen sort, the onscreen filter is displayed with the results or list of objects. With one tap, the filter is applied. HeyZap uses the standard toggle button bar, whereas Google uses vertical tabs.


HeyZap and Google.

CBS News and the ACL Festival app uses a scrolling filter bar as a way to let users quickly hone in on certain types of articles and bands, respectively.


CBS News (single filter bar) and Austin City Limits Music Festival (double filter bar).

Don’t use this filter pattern for primary navigation within your app, but instead use it to group and filter related content.

SXSW offers a filter button bar combined with a second row of filtering options. Feed a Fever news reader uses a super simple stylized set of comboboxes for filtering news feeds.


SXSW Conference app and Feed a Fever.

Filter options should be clearly worded and easy to understand. Show the filters that are applied or “on”.

Filter Drawer

Almost as efficient as the onscreen filter, a drawer can be used to reveal filter options. Flicking or tapping a handle will open the drawer. Audible’s drawer reveals a simple filter toggle bar, whereas Sam’s offers a host of filter options that can be applied to the map of club locations. A better design for Sam’s would be to leave the map visible and allow for dynamic filtering instead of the explicit “filter” button.


Audible and Sam’s Club.


Expedia’s new filter drawer.

Filter Dialog

Like a pop-up on in a web app, the filter dialog is modal in nature. It requires the user to select a filter option, or cancel the action. TripAdvisor on iOS has a custom filter dialog, whereas USPS Mobile on Android relies on the default selector control.


TripAdvisor and Due Today Lite.

While the Filter Dialog may get the job done, the first two patterns provide more freedom for users to experiment with and apply filters directly in context.

Keep the options list short, avoid scrolling. Consider a Filter Form for lengthier or multi-select filter options.

Filter Form

Large data sets can benefit from more advanced filter/refinement options. For example, WorldMate uses a form to filter hotels based on price, brand and stars. Zappos uses a similar approach, using the iOS standard drill down for selection, and the clear/done buttons in the title bar.


WorldMate’s filter form (looks very similar to Kayak’s design) and Zappos filter form for iOS.

Freetime uses custom controls in their filter form. First you pick the filter category, then choose the filter criteria, then apply the filter to the calendar.


Free-Time filter form.

Conditional filters, also called predicate editors or expression builders, are an advanced filtering feature typically found in reporting tools. Here’s the standard layout used on the web and desktop.


Predicate editor in the Wufoo web application.

Creating a conditional filtering a mobile application can be challenging in a mobile form factor but Roambi has accomplished it.


Roambi’s predicate editor.

Don’t over-design the filters, a simple onscreen filter or drawer will usually suffice. If a filter form is necessary, follow form design best practices.

More Resources

Learn more about designing usable and effective mobile apps in Mobile Design Pattern Gallery: UI Patterns for iOS, Android, and More:

  • Navigation
  • Forms
  • Tables
  • Tools
  • Charts
  • Invitations
  • Feedback & Affordance
  • Help

Also check out the Mobile Design Pattern Gallery website, blog and Flickr photostream with +600 screenshots.

(fi)

© Theresa Neil for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Just do what I say and everything will be alright.

It’s time for the return of my irregular series in which I tell games developers exactly what they must do and not do if they want to avoid being flayed and rolled in salt. You can see the rest of these rules here. It’s quite simple: obey my commands and everyone will be happy. No one needs to lose a life.

(more…)

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More and more applications these days are migrating to the Web. Without platform constraints or installation requirements, the software-as-a-service model looks very attractive. Web application interface design is, at its core, Web design; however, its focus is mainly on function. To compete with desktop applications, Web apps must offer simple, intuitive and responsive user interfaces that let their users get things done with less effort and time.

In the past we didn’t cover web applications the way we should and now it’s time to take a closer look at some useful techniques and design solutions that make web-applications more user-friendly and more beautiful. This article presents the first part of our extensive research on design patterns and useful design solutions in modern web applications. Below you’ll find a collection of 10 useful interface design techniques and best practices used in many successful web-applications.

Please feel free to suggest further ideas, approaches and coding solutions in the comments to this post. The second part of our research will be published soon: stay tuned via RSS Subscribe to our RSS-feed and Twitter Follow us on Twitter.

You may want to take a look at the following related articles:

1. Interface elements on demand

Simplicity is important in user interface design. The more controls you display on the screen at any time, the more time your users will have to spend figuring out how to use your interface. When there is less choice, the available functions become more apparent and are easier to scan. Simplifying an interface isn’t easy though, especially if you don’t want to limit the app’s functionality.

Kontain search
When you click on the search link in Kontain’s search box, a similar drop-down menu appears. So, if you need to narrow your search, you can use the menu to select the sort of content you’re looking for. Tucking these options away simplifies the search box.

One way of making things simpler is to hide or conceal advanced functionality. Find out the most commonly used functions of your interface and tuck away the rest. You can do this with pop-up menus and controls, which are very common on desktop software. For example, if your search bar has advanced filters, put them away in a special drop-down menu at the end. If users need those filters, they can enable them with just a couple of clicks. Deciding what to keep and what to conceal isn’t a simple task, though, and will depend on how important and how frequently used each of the controls is.

CollabFinder search
When you click on the search link in CollabFinder, you aren’t taken to a different page. Instead, the search box controls drop down, allowing you to begin your search straight away.

 

2. Specialized controls

It’s important to select the right interface controls for the situation. Different situations can be handled in different ways, and certain controls are better at their intended task than others.

Backpack calendar picker
Backpack has a compact calendar date and time picker for selecting a reminder date.

For example, you can select a date by using drop-down lists for day, month and year. Drop-downs aren’t very efficient, however, when compared to a calendar picker, where you can click directly on a day you want. Calendar pickers also help you see the days, weeks and months (and especially workdays and weekends) more easily and so allow you to make a more informed decision more quickly than you would with a simple drop-down list.

MyBankTracker APY Calculator
MyBankTracker’s APY calculator features easy-to-use slider controls for quickly trying out different projections.

Another good example of this are sliders. Yes, you can always input a number manually, but for certain situations, slider controls do a much better job. Not only are they easy to use — just click and drag — but you can also see how your selection fits between the minimum and maximum of an available range.

 

3. Disable pressed buttons

One of the problems Web applications encounters with forms is the submission process. With very simple forms, if you click the “Submit” button twice or more very quickly, the form will be submitted two or more times. This is obviously problematic because it will create duplicates of the same item. Preventing duplicate submissions isn’t very hard, and it is essential to do this for most Web apps.

There are two tiers to this safeguard: client-side and server-side. We won’t go through the server-side safeguard here because this will vary depending on the programming language you use and your back-end architecture. What you should essentially do is put in a check to ensure during the processing stage that whatever is being submitted is not a duplicate, and if it is to block it.

Yammer disabled button
Yammer disables the “Update” button while your new message is being submitted.

The client-side stage is much simpler. All you have to do is disable the “Submit” button the very moment it is clicked. The easiest way to do this is to add a piece of JavaScript to the “Submit” button like this:

<input type="submit" value="Submit" onclick="this.disabled=true" />

Of course, we would advise you to also implement server-side checks to be sure that duplicates don’t get through.

 

4. Shadows around modal windows

Drop shadows around pop-up menus and windows aren’t just eye candy. They help the menu or window stand out from the background by reinforcing its dimensions. They also block out the noise of the content beneath the window by darkening the area around it with a shadow.

This technique hat its roots in traditional desktop applications and helps the user to focus his/her attention on the appearing window. Since most modal windows aren’t as easy to distinguish from the main content as in desktop applications, shadows help them to appear closer to readers, because the window appears to be three-dimensional and lay above the rest of the page.

Digg login window
Digg’s log-in window has a thick shadow around it to block out the noise of the page beneath.

To achieve this effect, designers often create a container with a transparent PNG-image as background and place the content inside the container - with equidistant padding on all sides of the box. Another option is to use a background image with transparent borders and position the content box within this box using absolute positioning. This is exactly what Digg does — this is the image they are using (dialog.png). And this is the markup and CSS-style they are using:

(X)HTML:

	<div id="container">
		<div style="display: block; top: 236px; opacity: 1;" class="dialog">
			<div class="body">
        		<div class="content">
        			...
        		</div>
        	</div>
        </div>
      </div>

CSS:

.dialog {
    position: absolute;
    left: 50%;
    margin-left: -315px;
    width: 630px;
    z-index: 100001;

}
.dialog .body {
    background: url(/img/dialog.png) 0 0; /* semi-transparent .png image */
    padding: 40px 13px 10px 40px;
}

Alternatively, you can also use JavaScript-based lightboxes or drop shadows using CSS3-attributes we’ve described earlier, but you need to be aware that Internet Explorer won’t support them.

Basecamp project switcher
Basecamp’s project switcher window has a large soft drop shadow that helps the menu area stand out.

 

5. Empty states that tell you what to do

When you’re designing a Web application, it’s important not only to test it with sample data, but to ensure that it looks good and is helpful when there is nothing there yet. You should design the empty states.

When there is no information for a page or query yet, a helpful message telling the user how to start could go in that empty space. For example, a project management application’s home page may list the user’s projects, but if there are no projects yet, you could provide a link to the project creation page. Even if there is already a button to do that on the page, an extra bit of help doesn’t hurt.

Campaign Monitor empty state
Campaign Monitor points you in the right direction when you start building an email campaign.

This technique encourages users to actually try out the service and proceed directly with using the service after registration. Guiding the user through single steps of the application may help him or her to understand what advantages the application offers and if it’s useful or not. It is also important to present most important options to the users and only them — it doesn’t make sense to overflood them with numerous options. Keep in mind that users usually want to get a more or less concrete idea of what is offered to them, but they don’t want to jump into details — they have neither time nor interest in it.

Using empty states to motivate users and animate actions, you can significantly reduce the amount of “drop-outs” and help your potential clients to gain a better understanding of how the system works.

Wufoo empty state
Wufoo’s forms page has a large, friendly message inviting you to create a new form if none yet exist.

 

6. Pressed button states

Many Web applications have custom-styled buttons. These are anchors or input buttons that have custom images assigned as their backgrounds. The default input buttons may not be suitable in some cases, and the text links are sometimes too subtle. The challenge is, when you make your links look like buttons, they should act like buttons — and this includes having a “pressed” look when the user clicks on them.

This isn’t a purely visual tweak. Giving instant feedback to the user will make the application feel more responsive and bring the experience closer to what the user experiences on desktop applications.

You can add a pressed button state with CSS by styling the active pseudo-class of the link in question. So for example, if your anchor has the class add_task_button, you can style its active class by targeting add_task_button:active.

Highrise button pushed
Buttons in Highrise actually show a pressed state when you click on them, providing the user with a satisfying responsive feel.

 

7. Link to the sign-up page from the log-in page

Some people who haven’t yet signed up to your application will inevitably end up on the log-in page. They likely want to try out your application but can’t find the registration page in a hurry. Perhaps they’ve tried accessing a feature that’s only available to registered users.

Delicious sign in
Don’t have a Delicious account? No problem; a sign-up link is provided on the Delicious log-in page.

Goplan sign in
Goplan has a nice colored button on the log-in page pointing to the sign-up page.

Make things easy for these folks by placing a registration link on your log-in pages. If they haven’t got an account yet, they shouldn’t have to look for a registration page. Our studies confirm: 18% have a sign-in form or a link to the sign-in form placed next to it (e.g. YouTube, Reddit, Digg, Lulu, Metacafe).

 

8. Context-sensitive navigation

It’s important to think about what the user expects to see and what they need in every given context. You don’t need to display the same navigation controls everywhere because users simply may not need them in every situation.

One of the best examples of context-sensitive controls is the recent change in the Microsoft Office 2007 interface, in which the default set of toolbars was replaced by ribbon controls. Each tab on the ribbon holds different controls relating to a particular activity, be it editing graphs, proofreading or simply writing. Web applications can also benefit from such context-sensitive controls because these controls help unclutter interfaces by showing only what the user needs, not everything that’s available.

Lighthouse sub-navigation
Lighthouse features a familiar tabbed navigation menu; however, it also has a second level of menus right under the set of tabs. This level displays only the items associated with the active section of the website.

 

9. More emphasis on key functions

Not all controls hold the same importance. For example, on a screen for creating a new item, you may have two buttons: “Create” and “Cancel.” The “Create” link is more important because that’s what the user will be doing most of the time. Only rarely will they need to cancel the screen. So if these controls are located side by side, you may not want to give both the same emphasis.

Lighthouse create or cancel
The “Create ticket” button in Lighthouse. You can see the “cancel” link next to it, in plain text. The button not only commands more importance but also has a larger clickable area and is easier to spot because of its frame.

To shift emphasis to the “Create” link, we can simply use different styles or types of controls. Some applications use the form input button for the create action, and have the cancel action as a text anchor. This not only gives the create button more clickable area, it also helps to grab the users gaze better when they’re looking for it.

10. Embedded video

While pictures and text are a great way to communicate and teach your users about your app’s features, video can be an even better alternative if you have the resources to produce it. Video has been gaining popularity on the Web in recent years. For Web apps, videos are generally used on the marketing website as a kind of screencast to show off a product’s features; however, this isn’t the only way to use video.

GoodBarry video
GoodBarry features a video screencast on its front page showing off the product. It also uses screencasts inside the app to teach people on how to get started.

Mailchimp video
MailChimp includes tutorial videos right on the admin panel to help out new users.

Some Web apps use video inside the application itself to teach users how to use certain features. Video is a fantastic way to quickly demonstrate how your product can be used, because it is easier to consume than a page of text, and it is also much clearer because the viewer can see exactly what to do.

Related articles

Please take a look at the following related articles:

Discuss further techniques in comments!

Please feel free to suggest further ideas, approaches and coding solutions in the comments to this post. The second part of our research will be published soon: stay tuned via RSS Subscribe to our RSS-feed and Twitter Follow us on Twitter.

About the author

Dmitry Fadeyev is the founder of the Usability Post blog, where you can read his thoughts on good design and usability.

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