Labels and Tooltips

A principle articulated in The Design of Everyday Things is that a label is a confession of failure. If you need to label the light switches in your house, they are arranged unintuitively, and this is especially a problem if the lights are off. The door could have a push bar/plate or a pull handle; if you need to write “push” or “pull,” you are compensating for a design that may look pretty but fails to make the use of a door obvious.

Sometimes labeling is required. There are rarely intuitive mental mappings between a bank of buttons and their functions. You label the button on the phone for hold or mute. Computer UIs are generally in this category. (Icons also count as labels.)

Within that, you can have better or worse. The arrangement of arbitrary buttons can be intuitive or meaningful. The icons can be suggestive. Aspects can be made more or less prominent as relevant. Remember to adhere to industry standards unless there is a good reason to try to re-route what people have been trained to find intuitive. Remember that you are mapping functions to the keyboard as well as the screen, and you rarely get to label the keys.

Tooltips are one of my favorite principles in UI design, one so common that I forget about it until the tooltips are not there. You have to hate a screen with forty buttons that expects you to memorize what all forty icons mean. If I mouse-over something, it should tell me what it is after a moment’s delay, ideally with even more information if I keep hovering. I should similarly be able to get information on how to interact with items and objects in the world, rather than trying to remember what key throws a grenade.

I look forward to augmented reality so that we can have tooltips in meatspace.

: Zubon

8 thoughts on “Labels and Tooltips”

  1. Patch 4.0.1 for WoW, out this week, added something I haven’t noticed anyone discussing around the web. (If I missed it, I apologize) For new players, the tooltips have been re-written to include a sentence or two about WHEN you should use that ability.

    On my level 9 warlock, for example:

    Demon Armor: Keep this up at all times.
    Life Tap: Use when you’re low on mana and in combat.
    Drain Life: Use when you’re low on health and in combat, best after using Life Tap.

    Not the exact wording, but you get the idea. It’s easy especially for new players to get overwhelmed by all the buttons they’re presented with on their action bars. I can imagine this going a long way to helping them become more comfortable with these.

    1. Rumor has it 4.0.2 will also include auto-pilot mode for newbies, pressing the keys for you!

      Good post btw Zubon, just too easy to troll this particular change.

  2. I’m kinda scared about what my AR tooltip would say if someone would hover over me.

    I know I’ll grey con to pretty much everyone for sure, but the info can be pretty unsettling.

  3. Remember to adhere to industry standards unless there is a good reason to try to re-route what people have been trained to find intuitive.
    Ugh this reminds me of how I so hate when clients go on anti Microsoft rants and want me to rebuild interfaces so it looks and acts different (even on microsoft products like SharePoint).

    I keep telling them no matter how much you may not like a certain interface, unless you are also willing to spend millions on usability testing, you are guaranteed to be worse than Microsoft, not better. You’re not going to build a better interface by implementing your little pet ideas that have never been tested.

    Of course, no one ever listens.

  4. AR tooltips… those would drive me crazy.

    Either: Cup: Drink liquids from this. Pick up by handle.

    Or: Cup: Find two girls… Jim! Did you change the tooltip on my cup AGAIN?!

  5. @Dave Huston:

    Pff. New players are fine, you get a new ability every few levels, so you have time to assess each ability as it comes out. It’s people that are used to the way each class used to play that need the tooltips, as we have to relearn so much.

    I’d reply but my compulsory IE6 at work hates the nested reply function.

  6. Another nice change for WoW 4.0 is that hot keys get a large border around them when you proc or use an ability that improves their function. And say what you want about WoW being easy, but I like a game where I can raid as hardcore as I want with my friends and also level with my mother, who really appreciates the new changes. :.)

Comments are closed.