Feb 10, 2012

The Brilliant Design of Magic Ink

I've been plowing through Bret Victor's Magic Ink essay and I've noticed a set of very interesting UI elements that I really enjoy and hope to add to my style of writing (it might even be worth it to add these features to Wordpress' publishing code).

These are:
  • Anchors at every paragraph: the essay is long. When I sent it to some of the fellow programmers at work, the first thing they did was complain about how long it was. Since you don't usually read a 50 page essay in one sitting, you need a way to bookmark not only the page you are on (useless since everything is on one page) but where you are on that page. Victor takes advantage of HTML's ability to set anchor points within a page to anchor every paragraph so that when you don't really want to read anymore, you can just click on the hash next to paragraph (only visible when you mouse over the paragraph) and it will update your address bar to anchor to that paragraph. This is not exactly fancy modern technology, this entire feature just takes advantage of named anchors and the fact that when you click on one the browser doesn't reload the page. Extremely useful for long essays, yet I can't recall seeing this anywhere else.
  • Footnotes/endnotes are actually sidenotes. It's a bit annoying when you read an essay online that has footnotes/endnotes with a star or a cross or something and you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to see those notes (some posts make it easier by providing a link, but as vi users know moving your hand to the mouse is a pain). It takes effort and there is a disconnect between when you read what you are writing and navigating to wherever the note is. By putting the note on the side next to the paragraph, it is much easier to just move your eyes to look at the note rather scrolling or clicking. This comes at the cost of screen real-estate, however if you make the actual content of your essay thinner you don't lose a whole lot since there is still a flow when you're reading line-to-line.

I really like these UI tweaks because they are so incredibly simple, yet somehow are not very common practice. If ever I write something that is long and actually decent enough to slog through I hope to remember these little features to help people better read my stuff.

No comments: