Banner blindness and technical documentation
Posted by Sarah Maddox
We had an interesting discussion in our team at Atlassian this week, about framed, decorated boxes containing tips, warnings and notes. Should we use them? I’d seen some user testing results that suggest people don’t read content in such boxes. Another writer pointed out that the tests didn’t focus on technical documentation specifically, and that people may expect and therefore take notice of framed notes in technical documentation.
The research is by Jakob Nielsen, a well-known designer of user interfaces:
I found both articles enlightening, with their focus on tracking the eye movements of the test subjects. In particular, the videos are worth watching.
How to highlight notes if not in boxes?
User testing shows that people skim a page by jumping from heading to heading. One way to bring notes to their attention is therefore to have a “Notes” heading, followed by bullet-pointed notes.
If a note contains more than a sentence or two, it’s probably worthy of its own heading and short section.
What about speech bubbles?
Anne Gentle wrote about drawing speech bubbles in your documentation, to bring particular items to a reader’s attention. She’s using CSS to draw the bubbles. Very cool! Anne’s post led me to wonder if people are more likely to read content that’s in speech bubbles rather than rectangular boxes. Perhaps we’re conditioned to notice speech bubbles, and to think of them as likely to contain information that’s relevant and easily consumable.
What do you think?
This is such an interesting topic! I’d love to know the thoughts of other technical writers and of people who read documentation. Do you tend to ignore words enclosed in boxes? Have you done or seen any user testing that indicates whether people unconsciously skip over notes in framed, decorated boxes? Can we “train” our readers to read such blocks of content, by consistently using the same format for notes and warnings? But then, what if our documentation is web-based and so every page is page one, as Mark Baker so eloquently puts it – will the reader who comes surfing in off the ad-riddled web be conditioned to ignore text in boxes?