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January 25, 2005 / jnolen

Designing chronologically

I haven't had a lot of time to play around with JotSpot yet. But I did login and poke around a little. As I was doing so, I was reminded of a couple of posts (1, 2) that 37Signals' Jason Fried wrote on the 37Signals blog, Signal-vs-Noise.

Jason wrote about the challenge of designing an application's "blank-slate" phase — what it looks like before the users have added any data. Jumping around a new wiki application for the first time, I was stuck by how important this step is, particularly for wikis.

Wikis are vulnerable to problems here because a) lots of people aren’t quire sure what a wiki really is, and b) since wikis are all about displaying user data, the look very skeletal and ghost-town-ish in their empty state. The challenge is to figure out how to use all of that space to educate, but not confuse, the new user.

Another technique that would be useful here is progressively disappearing help text. For example, the first time you click on a new-page link, it is not immediately obvious that it’s your job to add content to create the page. Some explanation of what’s going on would be very useful. But after you’ve done it two, three or five times, that help text is no longer necessary. Most people just learn to ignore it, and it fades into the background. But might it not be better for that application to keep track of how many times you seen it, and then eventually hide it? Or if that’s too extreme, then do something like the Yellow-Fade Techinique to highlight the important help text only the first few times a user views that page.

There a probably lots of other similar ideas waiting to be implemented. Unfortunately, many designers don’t think about designing chronologically. But our applications need to accommodate all levels of use, from newbie to expert, and help the users to grow from one level to the next. Designing the user’s experience over time is a good start toward that goal.


  1. Scott McMullan (JotSpot) / Jan 26 2005 8:31 pm

    Jonathan you are right on with this post — thanks for making it, and thanks for including JotSpot as an example. We definitely want to improve Jot’s out of the box experience, so please share (email/blog/phone) your ideas and feedback.
    -Scott McMullan
    scott at

  2. Jonathan Nolen / Jan 28 2005 1:34 am

    Thanks for the note, Scott. I’m still looking around and compiling impressions. I’ll be sure to share them when I’ve got something ready.

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