"Just in time" information by reducing room-switching

Clock One of the usability rules that you might have heard is “provide the user information where and when they need it.” Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

It sounds so simple … but it’s harder than you might think.

It goes hand in hand with another usability principle that goes something like this–“don’t take a user to another room unless it’s really necessary and justified“. What does that mean? Well, every time you move to another page or bring up a dialog box, think of that as having taken the user into another room. Let’s say you’re on a USGS web site that has information about each of the U.S. states. Think of the page you start on as the living room–do you really need to take the user into the kitchen to ask him which state he wants to look at or give him the information he requested? There are times when it’s good to switch rooms, such as when you’re switching topics, but I would caution you to consider that decision carefully.

Hyperlinks on the web enable a lot of room-switching and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of hyperlinking to new pages, when you could provide the information right there and then–when and where the user needs it, without the hassle of moving to another room.

I am going to pick on the USGS earthquake center for an example. They have a lot of fantastic information on their site and I love that they are using many of the new technologies available. Some simple modifications that reduce room-switching would really improve the usability of the site.

  1. Let’s start at the worldwide earthquake page on their web site.
    • Click on one of the more isolated earthquakes. You are taken to another page (a new room) listing the details of the earthquake. Now the user has lost the visual of where the earthquake they clicked on was located. There is a “Maps” tab that even includes a Google Earth KML file and a Google map, along with lots of other useful-looking maps, but still the user can’t see the earthquake details and the map at the same time.
    • It would be very simple to replace the original world map with an interactive map with placemarkers for each earthquake. (Google Maps does this very well–and it’s free and easy to implement. Tim Mentele has done a lot of work with them already.) When you click on an earthquake placemark, the placemarker balloon could give you all the detailed information right there within the balloon. Voila! Information right where and when the user needs it–without leaving the room!
  2. Similarly, open their KML file in Google Earth.
    • Click on any of the dots. An information balloon comes up with a link to their web site for the earthquake details.
    • Now imagine that information from the web site right inside the KML info balloon. It would provide the information in the geographic context the user requested it in and eliminate the uncomfortable and unnecessary room-shifting.
    • You do have to moderate the use of this because you don’t want to overwhelm the user with too much information, but there are ways of segmenting information to control that. (Tabs work well … like the USGS Earthquake Center has employed on their web site.)

There are many other examples where this simple usability principle could be employed. Where could you use it?

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