The author of Catalog of Unfindable Web Widgets emailed me, asking “Why can’t an average guy find reasonably informative widgets to drop into a design? ”
I read his article, full of innovative ideas
“Introducing the idea of preemptive hinting. The most POPular links of the Day, week, month. Some sites construct entire paragraphs made of densely packed but separate links, and there are directories and whatnot. Perhaps there is some need to integrate Web statistics into user navigation widgets so visitors can tell the really hot links from those less traveled”
While a few of the ideas are a case of “right problem, wrong tool” he is 100% on the scent of something good. Why do we choose one widget over another? What is the right widget for the job? How do we use widgets in meaningful groupings, so that the user understands the range of possibilities that exist? And what widgets are missing from our toolsets?
Which reminds me of one of my ongoing widget issues.
Google’s tabs make me crazy. I know they shouldn’t, but they do. Tabs have proliferated across the web as a navigation device. From Amazon to PCWorld, they behave as the files in our file cabinet would. They classify and contain different stuff.
However, on Google, they act as lenses. Let me explain what I mean by “lenses.” Once you have done a search, you can see the information differently by applying a tab/lens to it. “See images”, “see groups”, “see directory listings”. If you click the tabs from the front page, it seems like they are behaving like proper tabs and take you to a whole new place where you can search a theorectically exclusive collection of stuff. But if you search first, it appears they more like night goggles, telescopes and microscopes– lenses that let you see very different things, yet, still the same matter.
I have had folks tell me that tabs-as-lenses is the proper software widget behavior. Research suggests otherwise: looking through windows, and at About Face (my favorite for best widget practices), I see tabs-as-folders — they hold mutually exclusive stuff (though typically the tabs are part of a family, the parent being the dialog box.)
In About Face, Alan Cooper writes, “I believe the tabbed dialog box is having such success because it follows the user’s mental model of how things are normally stored: in a monocline grouping”
It’s a subtle difference, tabs-as-lenses and tabs-as-folders, and looking at software standards is still less relevant than the question: “What is the prevailing experience and expectations of the web surfer? Tabs that behave as they do on Amazon, or as they do on the windows control panel, three levels deep into the TCP/IP settings?”
Then again, like the microscope/telescope analogy using the Google tab/lenses on my search shows me something so completely different that it might as well be classified separately. Too subtle a difference to fuss over? Then again, does a user really expect a tab to modify their existing search? or do they expect to be taken to a completely different collection of stuff, like every other tab on the web will do?
Would it be worth using a completely different widget for separating the concepts “these are different ways of seeing the same idea/item” and “these are different things altogether”? For a short while, Amazon experimented with using tabs within tabs to allow people to look at different aspects of book data: the reviews, the product metadata, the pictures from inside the book. The design is gone now, but it was a perfect example of tabs being used as lenses.
And if it is worth separating lens behavior from tab behavior, what would such a widget look like?