The Little Man Who Wasn’t There

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
Oh, how I wish he’d go away!
—Hughes Mearns

In a post on his blog “An American Editor,” Rich Adin posits that eBooks may be sounding the death knell for authorial greatness:

Why? Because unlike printed books sitting on a shelf, eBooks are not immediately visible to our view; we have to go find them on our eReader, or search for them online. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the saying goes.

I won’t repeat Rich’s arguments here; you should go read them for yourself. But I do believe that Rich is onto something important, and his post made me think about other things that are becoming invisible in this modern age.

Note References

A recent trend in book publishing is the use of “blind” notes—that is, notes that exist in the back of a book but have no indication in the text that they exist. The only way to see if a particular passage has an associated note is to turn to the back of the book and check. “Fascinating paragraph,” you think. “I wonder if there’s a note about this.” You turn back to the notes and look. “Nope.”

What if your cell phone worked that way? Suppose your phone gave no indication—no ringtone, no flashing light—that a call was coming in. The only way to know would be to pick up your phone periodically and listen. Does that seem like a good system?

Is an author’s text really so elegant that it should not be besmirched with superscript note references? Give readers a break; if there’s a note, give them some indication.

Well-Written Indexes

Professional indexers and seasoned readers know that a good index is an essential part of a good nonfiction book. Not only does it allow you to find particular passages, but it also gives you an overview of a book’s contents. Does the latest tome on Microsoft Word have anything new to say about macros? Check the index.

But some authors and publishers think that an index can be generated by a computer—just feed the computer a list of important terms, and it will mark those terms as index entries in the text. Generate the index, and off  you go! (Microsoft Word actually includes a feature that will do this; I don’t recommend it.)

Similarly, those who publish in electronic form often think that a program’s “search” feature is all that’s needed for readers to find what they’re looking for. But consider the old saying “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” It refers to motherhood, of course, but if you look for “motherhood” in a computer-generated index or with an electronic search, “The hand that rocks the cradle” won’t show up. A good index is a form of writing; it requires the application of a human mind, which can see meanings where a computer sees only words. (This, by the way, is why grammar checkers don’t work.)

Functional User Interfaces

Some web designers think that how a web page looks is much more important than how it works. They’re wrong about that. Imagine a web page so “artfully” done, so minimal in its design, that it offers no indication of how users should navigate the site. You would actually have to move your cursor around the screen to see what areas might be “clickable.” That’s the extreme, of course, but there are sites that offer little more than that. Google “minimalist web page” and you’ll find some.

Several years ago I attended the product launch for a specialized search engine. The interface had an elaborately designed logo with the word “Search.” Below that was a box where users could enter the text they wanted to find. Wanting to demonstrate the simplicity of the new search engine, the CEO invited his wife to step onto the platform and search for something, implying that if she could use the program, anyone could. (Unfortunately, this also demonstrated his own stupidity and callousness, but that’s another story.)  His wife entered some text but then couldn’t find where to click to activate the search. There was no button, no menu, nothing. Finally the CEO grabbed the mouse and clicked on the logo to activate the search. After all, it did say “Search.” The problem was, it didn’t look like something to click; it looked like a logo. Further, it was above the text box; but things should always appear in the order of use: First enter your text, then click “Search”—which means that the Search button should have come below the text box, not above it.

Form should always follow function; how something looks should always be subordinate to how it works. A button should look like a button.

Not that there’s anything wrong with simplicity. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but never simpler.” Those who are involved in any kind of communication—which means all of us—need to keep that in mind.


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