Better Widgets with Science!

WordPress version 2.8 was released earlier this month, and whether the developers actually read them or not, I’m glad that they seem to have implemented my suggestions for a cognitive science-based redesign for WordPress Widgets. In WordPress 2.5 Widgets: Taking the Load Off Your Mind, I argued that what a user sees on the back end of a blog is only an analogy to the the real blog, the one readers read and that the author wants to write. One challenge of software interface designers, then, is to build a blog-editing interface that provides a usable analogy to that end product, much the way a teacher might use a physical analogy (kids on a teeter-totter) to teach a mathematical concept (balancing an equation). I dug into the cognitive psychology of how teachers make such analogies effective, and came up with the following design suggestions:

  1. Add more informative labels to the “Available Widgets” pool. Leave the column of available/used/unused widgets along the left side of the screen, but move the brief descriptions of widget functions (currently taking up space in the middle of the screen) underneath their respective widget icons (or into tooltips?), and add a note describing the current placement of the widget, e.g.the “Add” link could toggle with something like, “Currently added to Sidebar Three”
  2. In the space that has opened up, allow users to display controls for up to six widgitized areas simultaneously, each in its own “Widget Area Management Box,” just like the “Current Widgets” single display. If the theme does not have that many widgetized areas, or you don’t need to work with more than one or two, the extra Widget Area Management Boxes can collapse, like the boxes for tags and categories below the post editing window. Uncollapsed boxes can display a widget area, or can read “none selected.”
  3. Allow users to decide whether each Widget Area Management Box will display its widgets in a column (portrait orientation) or a row (landscape orientation).
  4. Make everything draggable. Allow users to move individual widgets back and forth between the from the available pool and the currently displayed Widget Areas, and maybe even allow us to move the Widget Area Management Boxes themselves around in relation to each other.

And here’s the release announcement for the new software. (Watch for the New Widget Interface section of the video at 1:15.) I’d say three out of four science-based recommendations ain’t bad!

Much of the reasoning behind my recommendations involved freeing up working memory to focus on the problem at hand, the correspondences between the blog editor and the final product. That principle of not overloading working memory–and eight others–is brought to bear on teaching & learning by Daniel T. Willingham in Why Don’t Student’s Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. I’m currently reading through this book with an online group of educators in Group 4 of this summer’s CASTLE Book Club hosted by Scott McLeod. Please do drop by and share your thoughts!

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