Your users need your help. You’re the expert. Nobody knows your stuff better than you. The users want to learn, but they need you to guide them.
Guiding with simple text is easy. You can see it in any newspaper. They start with a headlines that lead you to subheadings and then to the article itself. This pattern appears in newspapers all over the world because it guides your eye through the page. The same pattern also appears in resumes.
Guiding in software is much more diverse because the nature of software is much more diverse. Jason Santa Maria guides the reader through his post about polaroid cameras with a big red S.
His page contains a title, a navigation bar, logo, date, comment number, but you know where to start looking in a split-second. That big red S (set in the very popular Soho font by Seb Lester) just grabs you and shows you where to start.
Showing them the way
Fundamentally guiding is all about contrast. A guide post wouldn’t help you if it looked like every other tree. Jason Santa Maria’s big red S guides us with a contrast in color, size, and alignment.
Another useful tool for guiding is hierarchy. The essense of hierarchy is telling people to worry about on this before another. Your guiding them in how to process the information. Hierarchy normally contrasts with size, but it doesn’t have to. Sam Brown creates hierarchy in the employment and experience sections of his entry in the Steven Stevenson Challenge using color changes, alignment, and spacing.
Planning the path
When you’ve guided properly you can draw a simple path showing the way most users will visually walk through the UI. In his Steve Stevenson resume resume the path follows a simple descent —from Steve’s name to his other interests— with hand-written trail markers.
Guides normally follow text direction
When your UI contains a lot of text you already have a guide. Users have an expectation of directionality. They expect to go from left to right in English and right to left in Hebrew. Don’t make them change just to suite you.
For the rare instances you have little or no type you have more options. You can follow circles, start in the middle, and even support spirals.
When the journey is the destination
When your software stops presenting or collecting information and starts becoming a tool then the journey becomes the desination. Gmail for example doesn’t send you out of the UI. You are never really done with reading and writing email. Instead you following many paths to the mail window in the center of the screen. However, once your reading and individual email you have a clear path from the top to the bottom and from the left to the right.
This type of path to the center is common with tools like word processors, spread sheets, and mail programs. The path concept is the same, but the destination changes.
Blaze the trail for your users and show them the way through your UI. Make them comfortable and they’ll start teaching you by exploring off the beaten path.