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Text as content

Text as interface element

Working together

Text = Content + Interface

When your text becomes the interface

On the Web, a chunk of text acts as both content and interface.

A menu item, considered as content, tells a user what the page is about, but the same menu item, considered as an interface element, is just a hot spot.

Text can swing both ways.

  • Content is what people are looking for--information, activity, perspective.
  • Interface is what people use to find the content, move through it, act on it.

Text as content

As content, text responds to questions the users ask about topics they care about. A product description is content. An article is content. Even a phrase that sums up an idea elaborated in the article is content.

As content, text also encourages and guides activity. For instance, when people shop online, and have to fill in their billing and shipping addresses, they are providing their own content, within a form that contains a (somewhat) meaningful message. In this sense, the labels identifying the fields are content.

As content, text also communicates context. The company name, the mission statement, the text in the main menu all signal who owns the site, what it is about, and how the people there think about the site's value.

Text as interface element

The same chunk of text that acts as content may also act as an interface element.

A heading that tells the user something about the topic to be discussed in a particular section also appears as a menu item on another page. As a participant in the menu, that text acts as content in a new way, forming part of a group of related topics, indicating how the writers think about the whole array of topics. But the heading is now hot, and acts as what user interface folks call an affordance--a way for the user to move to the section. The text has become an active part of the interface.

When the user clicks the menu item, and goes to the page, the heading appears again at the head of the section. The format--14 point, let's say, bright red Arial, centered, with plenty of space before and after--indicates to the user that this text is more important than the running text that follows. The graphic treatment acts as a passive, or inert, part of the interface, because although the formatting does not offer any software action, it helps direct the eye, offering help to the mind looking for a particular piece of content. So, even though the heading is a significant part of the content, stating an idea briefly, and advertising the content to come, it is also an element of the interface.

Working together

Content itself is reflected in the interface elements, including the graphic layout and the menu system, but, considered as interface, these verbo-visual expressions are not content.

They point to meaningful content, support it, reflect it.

But as buttons, formats, links, they serve a different function, helping people use their eyes and fingers to navigate through the content pile to particular tidbits.

When the interface designer and graphic designer have worked well in collaboration with the content providers, the organization, purpose, and tone of the content shines through the form. The inventor of the IBM logo, Paul Rand, once said

Design is the fusion of form and content, the realization and unique expression of an idea. Design Form and Chaos (1993).

Of course, Rand thought of design as a purely graphic effort, expressing relationships between the parts and the whole, through visual affordances such as contrast, balance, proportion, pattern, repetition, scale, and rhythm.

But on the Web, many people are builders of structures, organizing and manipulating content, giving it form through which the user will move. Today, we are all information architects.

Text is one of our most important building blocks. Almost anyone can make text. No one except a poet puts on a beret and announces, "I am extremely cool, because I can create text." Only specialists create flashy animations, layout templates, interface icons. But the rest of us create text. So all of us have to be aware of the way each piece of text will cooperate in the construction. What we write must function as a unit, taking up its own space, and as a part of the whole, holding the arch together.

To be heard or read, text takes on a format, whether that is a font on-screen, or a voice-over. And to be used, the text also takes on affordances for action, such as link tags, scripts, or active fields. By its nature as a symbolic representation of ideas, text is content. Therefore, the general rule is:

Text = Content + Interface.

Whether your text is meaningful or confusing, helpful or annoying, depends on you.

We give you a lot of advice on how to create text that guests will be able to understand, play with, act on, and enjoy. But you have to create the text itself, alert to its double life.

See: Black and Elder (1997), Bolter (1991), Krug (200), Morkes and Nielsen (1998), Nielsen (1997b, 1997d, 1999f), Siegel (1996), Spool et al (1997), Spyridakis (2000), Veen (2001)


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