Steve Duenes, graphics director for The Times, recently answered reader questions at the site. In one answer, he talked about striving for “daily graphic excellence” that educates readers without forcing them to skip a beat:
Our criteria for what makes a great graphic varies a little. There are things we attempt, and we hope the result will be spectacular, but we also think there’s such a thing as daily graphic excellence.
It doesn’t do us much good to produce a few splashy graphics but stumble on the smaller, routine things. If a reader can glance at a map or simple chart and quickly orient themselves or understand a statistic, and then continue reading the story without skipping a beat, it means we’ve edited and designed those graphics well.
A nice sentiment all the way around but the part that sticks out to me is the idea that good design makes it easy for people keep the beat.
That seems an especially apt metaphor for web design. By setting expectations, by offering preemptive support (e.g. explanatory text next to a form field), by being consistent, you let your visitors pursue their goals while staying in rhythm.
Keeping type in phase
Rhythm can come from a subtle visual thing, like keeping type in phase so it creates a rhythm up and down the page.
Type that’s in phase.
Or it can be done through smart, informational text that’s short and punchy so it’s easy to comprehend at a glance. That means users can stay on their path instead of having to bail to get more info.
Quick instructive text keeps customers in flow.
It can be UI options that offer mindless choices, even if that means more clicks. (Following Steve Krug’s advice that any time you give a user a no-brainer decision, without large amounts of stuff they don’t want or need, you’re making their job easier — “It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.”)
For example, TurboTax software makes people fill out one question per page for dozens of pages. Most sites would aggregate this data instead of spread it out over so many pages. While it may not be the most efficient method, the TurboTax way definitely gets customers in the flow of answering question and clicking through.
TurboTax goes one question at a time in order to keep customers on track.
Moving target slideshow links
On the other hand, little discrepancies can throw users’ rhythm off.
A pet peeve of mine: Slideshows on the web where the previous and next buttons bounce around on each page depending on the height/width of the images. You’re forced to recalibrate on each page. “But it’s just a little mouse movement.” Yeah, but your rhythm winds up totally botched.
Click the next button here...
...and it moves down leaving your mouse right over the back button:
Just put the buttons at the top of the page and visitors can keep their mouse clicking without having to break rhythm.
When it comes to rhythm, drummers talk about being in the pocket:
The phrase “in the pocket” is used to describe something or someone playing in such a way that the groove is very solid and with a great feel. When a drummer keeps a good metronomic pulse, often referred to as keeping time, and makes the groove feel really good, and maintains this feel for an extended period of time, never wavering, this is often referred to as a deep pocket…
Today, the term “in the pocket” has broadened a bit, suggesting that if two musicians (usually the bass player and the drummer) are feeling the downbeats together, feeling and placing beat “one” at the exact same time, they are said to be “in the pocket.”
Whether you are playing ahead (front) of the beat, or behind (back) of the beat, or right on top (middle) of the beat, as long as two musicians (ie. bassist and drummer) feel the downbeat at the same time, they’ll be in the pocket.
Many people feel that the question is not so much what the pocket is as much as how you know when you’ve achieved it. To the musician, it feels like the music is playing itself, as though everything has merged together … all the rhythmic parts being played by one instrument.
That’s a great goal for a designer too: create a situation where you and your audience are “feeling the downbeats” together. When you and your users are in sync, everything flows. It just feels right. And you earn a magical result: They start to trust implicitly they’re in good hands and that whatever happens next will make sense.
The “Add a task” flow in Highrise has five elements, but the metronome-like pace of it keeps it feeling simple.