Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
March 5th, 2008



I often hear from people who didn’t realize that each Wikipedia article maintains a comprehensive list of everyone who’s ever edited it, along with every version of the article. The button to display this list is displayed as the History “tab”, sitting prominently above the page contents. It’s so obvious, yet even experienced computer users miss it and cite its absence as their main beef with the site. A similar situation exists for the ever-important Edit tab, which many experienced users never notice.

But in this case, the problem doesn’t lie between the keyboard and the chair. Rather than fault the user, I find issue with MonoBook, the default skin for sites that run on MediaWiki, notably Wikipedia. MonoBook relegates the important history and edit links to a tiny, non-descript row of tabs at top, whose labels are all lowercase. At the time, it seemed like a neat way to deal with the sea of links that had been crammed into the Standard skin’s left sidebar, but MonoBook ended up being so minimalistic that everything but the current article text and the unnecessarily prominent list of translations got marginalized.

Speaking of minimalism, I tolerate Facebook for two reasons: it provides me with an audience and it has a really clean, efficient interface compared to comparable sites. (And it’s blue. I like blue.) Now the second reason is about to go away, as Facebook looks to reorganize its profile pages. They’re going the way of Wikipedia and adding tabs to separate the profiles into three sections: Wall, About, and Photos. Near as I can tell, these tabs will be utterly easy for newcomers to ignore, and the rest of us will notice them only because we’ve grown accustomed to our friends’s half-hearted attempts at being photogenic and writing witty “About Me”s.

Don’t get me wrong: I love tabs. Tabs make Web browsing bearable these days, and it makes using Internet Explorer 6 nothing less than torturous. But other than the occasional 300-pixel tabbed box, tabs belong in full-fledged desktop applications, like Web browsers, not in websites. It’s far too easy for visitors to ignore tabs in websites, because they’re not really discoverable unless they’re accompanied by ’90s-style rainbow-swirling effects as you hover over them, and by then you’ve been scared away.

Though I usually find his brand of usability unnecessarily strict and bland, usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s guidelines for tabs are worth taking a look at. If the tabs are right above the small content box that is affected by them, they’re quite discoverable. But place them at the top of a webpage, and the visitor’s eyes will immediately drift down to the heart of the page, the content.

Not all of Facebook’s redesign is so problematic: I like the idea of combining the wall with the poorly-named “Mini-Feed”, because you’ll often get wall posts in response to changing your profile picture or status, actions that are currently displayed out of context. But I still don’t know about continuing to call it the “Wall”. It was a Wall when you could devowel every Wall post that your friend had ever received. (The old version was kept around in the “History” section, of course.) It was a neat concession to Facebook’s otherwise orderly site. Now it’s just a corkboard: all your changes have to be fully contained within, basically, a boring little sticky-note.

As for replacing Wikipedia’s tabs, I don’t have a solid answer. I would however suggest adding an “Action box” to – of all places – the bottom of each page. Given a generous amount of space there, the action box would list in large font a few key ways for users to interact with the article: edit the article, discuss it, view its authors and history, and cite it. Any other actions, like renaming the article, can be listed below that in smaller text. As it is right now, a visitor is likely to see the article’s title up top, think that’ the beginning, and read down from there. A list of what to do next makes sense at the end of an article. After all, do you tell your friends to comment on your latest adventure before you even tell them the story?

Yes, I’m making a big deal out of a trifle, but it bugs me when websites are more tedious to use than they have to be.