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Chapter 5. Labeling Systems

Labeling is a form of representation. Just as we use spoken words to represent thoughts, we use labels to represent larger chunks of information in our web sites. For example, Contact Us is a label that represents a chunk of information, including a contact name, an address, telephone, fax, email information, and maybe more. You cannot present all this information quickly and effectively on an already crowded page without overwhelming impatient users. Instead, we rely upon a label like Contact Us to trigger the right association in the user's mind without presenting all that stuff prominently. The user can then decide whether to click through or read on and get more contact information. So the goal of a label is to communicate information efficiently; that is, without taking up too much of a page's vertical space or a user's cognitive space.

Unlike the weather, no one ever talks about labeling (aside from a few deranged librarians and linguists), but everyone can do something about it. Web site designers and managers create labels for the site without even realizing it. Why? Because labeling is a natural outgrowth of creating organization and navigation systems that sites can't function without, and because labeling things comes very naturally to humans. It's too easy not to think about labeling. The point of this chapter is to get you to think about labeling before you dive in.

Pre-recorded or canned communications, including print, the Web, scripted radio, and TV, are very different from interactive real-time communications. When we talk with another person, we rely on constant user feedback to help us hone the way we get our message across. We subconsciously notice our conversation partner zoning out, getting ready to make their own point, or beginning to clench their fingers into an angry fist, so we immediately shift our style of communication, perhaps by raising our speaking volume, increasing our use of body language, changing a rhetorical tack, fleeing, etc.

Unfortunately, the Web isn't sufficiently interactive for us to know how well we're getting our message across. So, assuming we don't have extensive user testing budgets for our sites, we need to guess how the average user might best respond to our message and write it that way. "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and then tell 'em what you told 'em." This canned approach is completely contrary to real-time conversation, which is the way we're used to communicating. Therefore, as a form of pre-recorded communications, labeling is a great challenge for web developers.

Where does labeling fit with the other systems we've discussed? Well, labels are often the most obvious ways of clearly showing the user your organization and navigation systems. For example, a single web page might contain different groups of labels, with each group representing a different organization or navigation system: an overall organization system that matches the site's hierarchy (e.g., Resources for Dog Owners, Resources for Dog Groomers, Resources for Dogcatchers), a site-wide navigation system (e.g., Main, Search, Feedback), and a sub-site navigation system (e.g., Submit a Resource, Annotate a Resource). So before you begin creating labeling systems, you need to have already determined the site's organization and navigation systems.

5.1. Why You Should Care About Labeling

5.1.2. Making Bad Impressions

Besides immeasurably affecting navigation, labeling influences your site's users in many other ways. The way you say or represent information in your site says a lot about you and your organization. If you've ever read an airline magazine, you're familiar with those ads for some educational cassette series that develops your vocabulary. "The words you use can make or break your business deals..." or something like that. This may sound silly and a bit overblown, but after visiting some purportedly professional organizations' sites that include such terms as Cool, Hot, and Stuff in their labels, you'll start to agree with those purveyors of vocabulary-improving cassettes. Your organization has probably mortgaged its future to create a professional graphic identity and presence in its industry. Poor, unprofessional labeling can betray that investment and destroy a user's confidence in an organization.[11]

[11]Counterpoint: the Web is a more insouciant, fun-loving medium than, for example, the buttoned-down stuffiness of annual reports. At least for now, that is. That's why investors were willing to pump millions into something called Yahoo! (which, incidentally, is an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle"). A year before Yahoo! came out, we started something stuffily named "The Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Internet Resource Guides" (now called The Argus Clearinghouse: http://www.clearinghouse.net/); if only we'd gone with something cuter or hipper -- for example, Dogwash! -- we would now be worth zillions.

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