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A successful label will often draw on a user’s existing, contextual understanding, their mental model…

A label is a a word or short phrase that provides an efficient means of summarising a topic or action. A successful label will often draw on a user’s existing, contextual understanding, their mental model of a topic-area or process. For example, the label ‘About us’ is often used, in the context of website navigation, as shorthand for “Content that describes the organisation that owns/operates this website”.

In the context of web communication, labels are used to:

Unless a website caters to an niche audience (e.g. a specialised trade, professional, or research organisation), it is best to avoid jargon when creating labels. Where jargon is appropriate, a description or micro-content summary (gloss) may be necessary to support casual-user understanding.

Frequently asked questions as labels: An untested theory

As at July 2005, an emerging trend is the use of questions as labels; for example: ‘Who are we?’ in place of ‘About us’; and ‘What do we do?’ to describe the services an organisation provides. An (untested) theory is that such labels have a negative impact upon what the user thinks as they scan a webpage—what usability expert Steve Krug describes as their mental chatter.

As a real world analogy; if you wanted to find out when the next train left for destination x, you would probably look for a poster/chart/booklet named ‘timetable’, ‘schedule’ (or similar). Labelling this information: ‘When do the trains leave for…?’, would result in the cognitive equivalent of a ‘double-take’, slowing down the process of evaluating whether the information found is a match for the task to be completed.

One of the difficulties that is likely to arise when evaluating the impact this approach to labelling has on website usability, is that evaluation methodologies typically rely on the use of prompts—questions.

When a person is asked: “Whose website is this?” or “What does this organisation do?” a navigation label or heading that closely matches the phrasing or keywords used in the question is likely to have a high degree of resonance.

Related terms: folksonomy, handle, hyperlink, information architecture, information foraging, natural language, navigation, scan.


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