Web Architect--Love Your Labels
By Samantha Bailey
At a Glance
If you haven't spent a night tossing and turning with the nagging sensation that your Web site's labels aren't up to snuff, chances are you aren't a librarian.
Labels are the words and phrases throughout your site that identify content. Employing a labeling scheme and applying effective, coherent labels can make the difference between a site that's a pleasure to navigate and one that doesn't get bookmarked because it's too much trouble to use.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to come up with the perfect label, and it's not the most interesting component of Web architecture and design, which means labels often fly coach when they should go first class. A lot like librarians -- we're the folks who are good at (and, dare I say it, who get excited about) classification and labeling.
But you don't have to be a librarian to benefit from some of the tricks of the trade.
Of all the ways that labels can run amok, here are three problems that appear so often as to be omnipresent:
The Identity Crisis
This label has an identity crisis that makes it vague or misleading. Vague labels often appear in bunches and leave users uncertain about where to go. In other instances this label promises one thing but delivers something else entirely. How many times have you expected a tour, which implies interactivity, only to get a site map?
The Split Personality
All too often the label on a site's main page doesn't match the title or header on referring pages, leading to user confusion. I recently visited my alma mater's site and clicked on "The Classroom," only to find the referring page entitled "Course Information." Not only were the label and content title inconsistent, but the title conveyed the information more clearly and would have made a better label in the first place!
This is the label that makes you scratch your head and mutter, "where'd they come up with that one?" My current favorite is the label First Things First. Taking an informal poll about this label's content, I've had guesses including author info, registration and site map. This label actually refers to a collection of newspaper links. The Left Fielder can have a certain whimsical charm, but ultimately it hampers a site's effectiveness.
It's all well and good to poke fun at a few examples of confusing and/or misleading labels, but the truth is, there are more poorly labeled sites out there than clearly labeled ones, and even the most dedicated Web architect is probably guilty of pitching a left fielder at one time or another. My point in drawing attention to these labeling mishaps is not to single out a few unlucky parties, but to exemplify the hazards of applying weak labels.
So how to avoid a labeling nightmare? First, understand why labeling is important -- if you don't appreciate its value, you won't be motivated to work at applying labels effectively. Second, understand the elements of weak labels -- learn what not to do. Finally, employ techniques that will
result in clear, intelligible labels. Here are three techniques to get you started:
Let Your Audience Be Your Guide
Web site designers and developers frequently work closely with content over an extended period of time. We become accustomed to thinking about content from our own, or our organization's perspective, which may differ a great deal from the perspective of our users. Think about your content from the viewpoint of your intended audience.
Labels and labeling schemes are effectively a language, or way of conveying information, and different audiences use different languages. What is "oncology" to a researcher might be "cancer" to a lay user or patient, for example. Consider taking this process a step further and actually surveying your audience -- they may well give the best advice when it comes to choosing and applying labels.
Avoid the Tyranny of Conformity
There is a tendency to force labels into a 2-3 word phrase, whether it's in the best interest of conveying information or not. This may stem from design customs and screen real estate pressures -- we want our labels to fit into bars or next to icons in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.
But sometimes this practice seems to have more to do with the fact that "everybody does it that way," than with good Web architecture principles. Consider whether your site is best served by super-short labels. Are you being cryptic instead of clear?
Rely on Established Conventions
Beware the perils of conformity -- but don't let them stop you from learning from those things that work. If you don't have to re-invent the wheel, don't! Take lessons from sites that are particularly easy to use and employ similar labels and labeling schemes.
Further, investigate vocabularies already in use. For example, sites thatprovide medical information can rely on the standard vocabulary already employed by the medical community.
Applying labels effectively probably won't be the most fun you'll have with your Web site, but it need not give you sleepless nights. If you really want effective labels, consult with a librarian -- not only are we good at this stuff, we actually like it!