How to Create and Deliver Intelligent Information

Designing Findable Features

Findability is central to usability

If you can’t find something, you can’t use it. This concept applies to everything from locating features on an app to identifying the links on a website. So, how do you design for findability? It depends.

Your ability to find something involves what you are looking for. This is because our brains engage in different processes when trying to locate information. Knowing the searching processes individuals use is essential to creating features individuals can easily find and use.

Unguided Searching  

When we have no idea what we are looking for, contrast is key to finding things. Imagine you are driving through an area you have never been to before. You are searching for something to indicate where you are. Suddenly, you notice something red, and your attention is drawn to it. You’ve found a stop sign, and you focus your attention on that item.

Why did you notice the stop sign?  Some might say it is because the color red catches our attention when searching for things. In truth, it’s the contrast created by the red color against its usually drab background that generally makes red things easier to find. If, however, the entire environment is red, we would have a hard time seeing stop signs, because they would be visually similar to their surroundings. In such cases, a darker color would contrast more and better attract our attention when we search.

When we don’t know what we’re looking for, contrast is often what catches our attention and guides our searching and finding behavior. The more something contrasts from its environment, the more likely we are to find it in that setting. When we encounter new items or move through new designs, contrast becomes essential to finding things. But contrast only works in certain situations.

Focused Searching

Imagine you are meeting your friend at a Starbucks coffee shop in an area you’ve never been to before. When you enter the area, you are looking for a particular thing – a Starbucks sign. As you move through that area, you look specifically for something that matches the design of that sign. Oddly, you are so focused on finding a Starbucks sign that you don’t notice a red stop sign and almost cause an accident. Finally, you see what you recognize as a Starbucks sign and move toward that place.

Why was this searching behavior different?  When we have a preconceived idea of what we are looking for, the brain engages in a different search process. It creates a mental picture of the items we want to find and focuses on finding that thing. This guided searching can cause us to not “see” or “find” high-contrast items we’d usually notice.

This process is also why we can find certain designs difficult to use. For example, if we’ve used a particular software before, we expect the design of its interface and features to look a certain way. This helps us find those features when we use the technology. If, however, a company changes the design of such features, we have a difficult time finding them. This is because we are looking for a particular thing and fail to see the newly designed item due to guided searching.

Design Aspects

What do these factors mean for usability and design? If you are updating a product or creating a product to compete with prior ones in a marketplace, usability involves parallel design. The features of that update or product need to look like a prior version or existing designs used by competitors. Such parallel design involves mirroring the design features users expect to encounter when using something.

When creating products with no prior or existing versions, a different design process is needed. Here, contrast becomes essential to helping users find features. This means making sure key features contrast from the background on which they appear, and not putting too many features in one place in order to avoid pulling the user’s attention in many directions. Additionally, these designs should contain text or some other aspect that notes what the item does. (This is why brightly colored stop signs also contain text telling you what to do – “STOP” – for contrast alone does not convey meaning.)

Sometimes, individuals need to create a new feature on an existing product. These designs should not disrupt the existing layout users expect, and this guides their searching and finding behavior. In these instances, contrast can draw the user’s attention to this new feature, but that design must indicate what the feature does. Accomplishing this can involve integrating descriptive text into the design (e.g., adding the words “Footnote” to a new red icon for the feature “insert footnote”). This approach helps address the findability of new features in well-known designs.

Final Thoughts

The human mind is an amazing thing. The better we understand how it works, the better we can design items to address those processes. For usability, knowing how the mind searches for and finds things helps us create designs that are usable because they are findable. Such knowledge can be key to creating new products or developing product updates that are successful in today’s marketplace.

Let’s meet in China

I’m very excited to be keynote speaker at tcworld China 2020. And I can’t wait to see you there too! It takes place May 21-22 at the Le Méridien in Shanghai. Take part and learn how cognitive factors can guide technical communication practices involving product development, content creation, user testing, and localization and translation.

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