Friday, 30 July 2010

Can't See the Wood for the Trees

Yesterday my colleague and I were contemplating general web design - in advance of designing new Moodle themes for a Moodle hub we are working on. The conversation ventured off into looking at web themes in general and he showed me the wonderfully elaborate theme on Web Designer Wall. We wondered if this was a WordPress theme or not...

And we searched and searched the page and couldn't find mention of WordPress anywhere.

We both looked at each other convinced that this must be a WordPress blog. When we looked back at the screen there it was: a large WordPress icon in a box about half an inch high by an inch and a half long - containing "WordPress" in big letters.

How did we manage to miss that?

Have you ever lost a piece of paperwork on your desk only to have a colleague come along and point to it right there in front of you? I don't mind admitting that it happened to me the other day. How did the paperwork come to be invisible (at least to me) until someone pointed their finger at it?

I've had a long interest in cognitive psychology - and especially the design of user interfaces both screen-based and otherwise.

If you haven't listened to the interviews with @moodleman Julian Ridden on Moodle Mayhem then a) you should because Julian knows his stuff and they are fascinating listening and b) Julian talks in detail about the design of the Quantum Riverview E-Learning Portal. Umm... should that be a), b) and c)?

What interested me about the Moodle Mayhem discussion is that Julian mentioned he'd put all the blocks on the right and the main content on the left because English readers have a left-to-right reading order (as above). That set me thinking: would this affect the way a user would interact with the site?

I'm a big fan of the research carried out by Donald Norman - author of one of my favourite books The Design of Everyday Things. Basically Norman asserts, based on his research, that users seek "cues" (typically "visual cues" but they could be audio cues) based on the task they want to carry out.

Then there is the notion of actually reading from left to right...

Those who know me will be aware that I worked for a time with the blind and the visually impaired. Braille readers are actually few and far between but the remarkable thing is that in just the same way we read ahead as we read a sentence (less confident readers don't manage this as well which is why children's reading sounds... so... stilted) so Braille readers will actually read with two hands - the leading hand reading ahead. I guess the same is true with music sight readers (hats off to my mother-in-law who can play the piano like this). Check out the interesting work done by Thomas Wolf in the 1970s here. Wolf suggested there are (I guess obviously) lots of cognitive processes going on - perhaps the most powerful being pattern recognition, interestingly. Though again, with music, this is left-to-right reading order.

Have you tried speed reading? If not then the idea is that you open the page of a book, place your finger in the very middle of the page under the first line and focus your sight in the middle of the page as you drag your finger down it (your eyes following your finger down the page). The idea is (and I'm not sure how efficacious this actually is) that your peripheral vision will recognise word patterns - or the sense of the patterns - and you'll be able to get a feel for the content without having to read it properly. That doesn't involve scanning from the left to the right.

But there is a deeper level at which Julian's very interesting point about left-to-right reading order works extremely well - and that is the relationship between the visual and a description of the visual, read from left to right. I'll try and explain what I mean...

I don't know how many readers are familiar with UK television "celebrities" Ant and Dec?

Ant and Dec are both very popular here in the UK but, with the best will in the world, neither Ant nor Dec individually have too recognisable TV personalities (I'm sure they're wonderful company in real life). To overcome that tricky problem all their publicity photos have them stood, from left to right, in the order Ant... then Dec.

If you don't believe me then do a quick Google image search for "Ant and Dec" to see what I mean.

Are you a Moodle theme designer? What metrics do you use to judge usability? Have you carried out any usability studies? For example, there's a great thread on here.

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