Defensive Design for the Web: How To Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Crisis Points
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We’re currently working on a web-based application that will start off with no data, but will grow and “organize itself” quickly as more and more people use it. When we designed the UI, we designed it as if it was flush with data. Data everywhere. Data in every list, every post, every field, every nook and cranny. And it looks and works great.
However, the natural state of the app is that it’s devoid of data. When someone signs up, they are basically starting with a blank slate. Much like a weblog, it’s up to them to populate it — the overall look and feel doesn’t quite take shape until it full of posts, data, comments, sidebar info, etc.
Unfortunately, the customer will decide if they like the application at this blank slate stage — the stage when there’s the least amount of information, design, and content on which to judge the overall usefullness of the application. In other words, they won’t know what they are missing because everything is missing.
Over the years I’ve noticed that most designers and developers take this blank slate stage for granted. They never really spend a lot of time designing for the blank slate because when they develop/use the app, it’s flush with data (for testing purposes). Sure, they may log-in as a new person a few times, but the majority of their time is spent swimming in an app that is full of data. Unfortunately, every single customer sees the blank slate before they see the “full slate.” They base their opinion of the app/site on the blank slate. Ignoring the blank slate stage is one of the biggest mistakes a designer/developer can make.
We’ve decided to use the blank slate stage as an opportunity to insert quick tutorials, help blurbs, and even links to example screenshots to get people started. If you haven’t posted anything yet, we briefly explain how to get started, what a post will look like, etc. We’ve found that these little vignettes really help people get started. They set expectations and help reduce frustration, intimidation, and overall confusion. They work.
How have you handled the blank slate stage on your own projects?