Let’s see more context-aware design touches

I hope, and I predict, that we’ll start to see more of a trend in web and software development in the coming months and years that probably already has a great name, but since I don’t know it, for now I’m giving it my own name: context-aware design.

Loosely, I define context-aware design as a principle where an interface offers up specific information geared to that particular unique situation — either some customized data, navigation, or other existing element that’s loaded up at just the right time when it might benefit the user most.

I noticed a subtle but great example of it today when looking for a post on 37signals’ blog Signals vs. Noise. It was hidden in an often-overlooked and under-designed area that most blogs have: category archive pages. On Signals vs. Noise, if you click a category archive link (“Business”, in this example), you don’t just see what you’d expect from most blogs: the typical reverse-chronological list of blog posts from the Business category. Instead, you’re greeted with a nice bit of context-aware design right at the top of the screen:

A screenshot of the “Business” category of posts on the 37signals blog Signals vs. Noise

See the “Popular” box at the top right under the page title? It’s a simple concept: For folks browsing that category, why not show them the 10 most popular posts, right off the bat? If they’re deep diving for a particular item or topic (rather than searching), there’s a good chance one of the popular posts is the one they’re looking for — and if they’re just perusing, showing the most popular posts is a simple but effective approach to showing what types of content are in that category.

The “Popular” box shows off what makes context-aware design such a benefit for both developers and users: It’s simple to implement — most blog software will readily serve up popular content in a widget — and it’s the type of spontaneous experience that creates and builds trust. It adds up to less cost and more time spent with the interface.

Meet T-Paw

I get that taking some share of the youth vote away from President Obama is going to be a key to victory for Republicans in 2012. But that still doesn’t fully explain Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty referring to himself as “T-Paw” on his campaign website:

A screenshot of former MN Governor Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign website

If a Pawlenty fan (or foe) out there can explain this as something other than a unique attempt to connect with The Youth of America, please let me know.

The “Docs”

I made this graphic in honor of all those folders on computers full of random documents and labeled simply “Docs”. Click it to enlarge.

Why the Bangor Daily News “ad frame” is bad for you, and what to do about it

Links should be free- and users are worth more than a few cents each. Why “ad frames” are bad business for news.

My local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, has made some admirable improvements to its otherwise lackluster website over the past few months. To their credit, they’ve slowly integrated topic and people-based cross-links throughout their site, created “topic-centric” destination sections on health, sports, and politics, and appear to be slowly migrating their site from a vertical platform CMS to the world-class WordPress CMS.

An example of the ad frame used on the Bangor Daily News website (click image for full view)

 

Want an easy way to remove the BDN’s “ad frame” bar?

Firefox and Chrome users, install this Greasemonkey script I made. It will load the links to the sites as they intended, cutting out the BDN’s ad frame.

Install Zap BDN Frames

Firefox users need Greasemonkey first

All the goodwill engendered by those steps threatens to be undone with their most unethical and annoying update: A persistent top frame that sticks you with a BDN-hosted ad — even when you’ve clicked off their site to visit other links. (Here’s an example of the “ad frame” in action– what you’d see after clicking a link from the BDN website). Worse, the BDN ad frame give users no way to remove the frame- a feature that even the universally-derided “Diggbar” offered before being shut down due to overwhelming criticism.

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