ACCU 2011 Nuggets: 1. Hide and seek

ACCU 2011 Nuggets : short distillations of ideas presented at the 2011 ACCU conference.

My first nugget is from Giles Colborne ‘s talk on simplicity (slides here ).

Giles categorised the types of usability improvements you could make into four species: Reduce, Reorganise, Hide, and Displace.

I want discuss the hiding case then share Giles’s illustrative example of how to best execute this.


We need to make two good choices in order for hiding to work.

  1. What features should we hide?
  2. Having hidden them, how does our user access these features?

Well (you say), you could hide the less used features, then have some sort of ‘reveal’ button to allow access again. You could even adaptively work out which features to hide over the first week or so of real usage. In extreme cases, you could even talk to your users to find out what they might want. It turns out that it’s very hard to get this approach right. Colborne cited various examples where this was very badly done: the menus in Microsoft Office (or your Start Menu) being a prime suspect. Think of the video remote control with the button you always need hidden behind the protective “expert” cover (hat tip Ewan Milne for that example).

Is there a better way?

Colborne regaled us of a time when he was browsing the New York Times website, and came across a word he didn’t know: “Bodega”. Naturally, he highlighted the word, ready for the standard copy-paste into Google, but before he could navigate away, a clickable “?” appeared above the word, successfully tempting him to click it for a definition, rather than looking for it elsewhere.

You can try this feature on any article on the NYT site (try this one ?), and while it isn’t perfect (it opens a new window, for shame), it’s a great little example of how to take advantage of habitual user behaviour to reveal features at the exact moment when they’re needed.

Unfortunately this then leads to the perhaps more difficult question of figuring out what the habits of your users are (if they exist!) – I refuse to ruin any hopes I have of keeping this short by discussing this here, so this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Is there a good name for this idea?

I really don’t want to have to call it user-habits-as-unhide-hints, which is the best I have so far. Further examples of this sort of technique would be good, too!