Leah Guren presented a fast-paced, entertaining session full of relevant tips to improve visual editing in documentation. While some of her advice refers to page-based deliverables, most of it also applies to online output styled by CSS.
First, Leah showed how good layout improves usability, while poor design actually hurts the success of your documentation:
- Good design means to apply layout that supports the document’s meaning. So use numbered lists for sequenced information, bullet lists for unordered information and tables to (visibly) structure information.
- Poor design means information is hard to find, hard to identify and simply looks unprofessional.
To apply good layout design, you can use 5 principles which make up the acronym PARCH:
- Proximity.Ensure that items and information that belongs together appears together:
- Place headings closer to the text they belong to below than to the text above.
- Arrange list items in chunks, so each item is easily recognizable as a unit of its own.
- Offset individual paragraphs to clarify paragraph integrity.
- Alignment. Ensure that vertical alignment uses few, sensible points of reference, so bullets and numbers are indented to one vertical line, the list items introduced by bullets and numbers to a second vertical line. Also ensure that text flow in tables is clear and it’s easy to identify which table items belong to the same row.
- Repetition. Repeat visual patterns to signal intent and to ensure consistency. This applies to how you use colors and icons and where you place items within a topic or on a page.
- Contrast. Apply contrast to focus the reader’s attention. For example, use larger and/or bold fonts for headings.
- Hierarchies. Use hierarchies of topics and sections to nest information. This also means to avoid single children of parent topics, because you logically cannot divide a chapter or section into just one sub-section. (As a solution, you can either move the child topic to the parent level, or if more child topics are on the way, have a placeholding topic that introduces or previews the forthcoming topics.)
Then Leah offered some additional tips:
- Use icons to allow for quick filtering. Like a Thai restaurant that marks hot dishes with icons of one or several chili peppers. Or vegetarian dishes with a leafy icon.
- Choose your fonts smartly and consistently.
- Don’t design for exceptions. For example, don’t create a standard table with wide cells, just because you may have one or two cases which otherwise need to wrap around.
- In headings and paragraphs, apply white space only above for consistency.
And as final recommendations:
- Learn about design – it’s pretty easy already with stuff you can find on the web or paperback books.
- Ensure you get and stay involved in the design of your documents.
- Experiment and try new things – be brave, but stay sensible.