Short Description

Examples: Context:  The artifact contains a visual pointer, or "virtual fingertip" (mouse or pen point, for instance) that is the focal point for the user's interaction with the artifact.  Nearly all the primary patterns with a visual component can use this to good effect, particularly Navigable Spaces for link descriptions,  High-density Information Display, Status Display, Control Panel, and WYSIWYG Editor.

Problem:  How should the artifact present additional content, in the form of clarifying data or explanations of possible actions, to the users that need it?


Solution:  Show a short (one sentence or shorter) description of a thing, in close spatial and/or temporal proximity to the thing itself.  Allow the user to turn it on and off, especially if the description obscures other things or is otherwise irritating; alternatively, don't show it without some deliberate user action on an item-by-item basis, such as pressing a key or hovering over the item for a certain length of time.
Self-referential Illustration of "Short Description"

Resulting Context:  You get to decide what text to put into the Short Description.  There's no point in being redundant with whatever's statically shown in the artifact; if you're going to impinge upon the user's attention with a popup or something, at least add some value with it.  You could use it to describe a possible action (as with Pointer Shows Affordance), or describe the results of the action, or reveal more data (thus implementing Optional Detail On Demand).

Notes:  In his January 11, 1998 Alertbox column, Jakob Nielsen strongly recommends using link titles to help give the user a preview of where a Web link goes; they add important contextual information to the sometimes-mysterious HTML links.  These are effectively Short Descriptions.

I've never seen it done, but this pattern could theoretically be used with speech in a multimodal interface.  As you focus your visual attention on some feature, the Short Description for that feature could be spoken aloud to you.

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Last modified May 17, 1999

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jenifer Tidwell.  All rights reserved.