Ah, indicators, notifications, validations. A virtual soup of icons, color, and text that either lead to minor panic attacks or promote procrastination.  Those visual nuances that tell us through color, icon, text, motion or a combination thereof, that something needs attention: immediately or later or FYI. Sometimes accompanied with fear-of-God messaging, sometimes not; “(!) Please provide a first name” or “(!) Required.”

However, not all notifications are necessarily equal. Notifications may and will have varying levels of importance to the user or to the system. Failure to see and take action may have serious consequences, while others can be put off  – i.e., remind me later.

Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) has, as usual, an informative article on indicator types, “Indicators, Validations, and Notifications: Pick the Correct Communication Option.”

I’m in the midst of a project where there are four to five potential levels of notifications  with possibly more to appear. Yes, it’s a cringe-worthy, but sometimes you show up and the only thing you get is lemons. So you do your best to manage the experience for the end user. In this case:  not confuse the hell out of her (the user) by having to decipher different color notifications w/ or wo/ indicators (e.g., icons) and messages (at the same time), try to prioritize them (correctly), and then act on them (or not).

You know, “Do no harm.”

The project is the display of a specific set of categories (approximately seven) with corresponding attributes and data. Oh so much data. The UI is a grid display (think Excel), and therefore imperative that the user be able to quickly orient herself, interpret what she reads/sees, and locate things she needs to attend to: immediately, soon, or whenever. (Literal definitions.)

In order of priority:

  • Blocker – critical information is required or the user can’t participate in sales
  • Nice to have – information the user should supply, but not a blocker
  • Optional – information can be supplied, but it’s not critical or nice to have
  • Search results – here’s what you searched for,  here is/are the result(s) – or not

The key to managing this potential carnival will come down to business rules.
Such as:

  • When do certain notifications appear, or not appear?
  • What notification overrides all others?
  • What notifications can appear together?
  • What notifications are considerate reminders while others are more in your face?
  • And etc.

Without business rules in place the user will undoubtedly be hit over the head numerous times with numerous messages, and most likely experience inaction (freeze) because it will be difficult to know where to start.

Biz rule #1: Critical information is king – bow down
Obviously, the most critical information needs to be top dog; if it’s missing, the user needs to supply it ASAP. This is notification should, when applicable, be highlighted above all other notifications to allow the user quickly focus and take action. In other words: red.

While other notifications may have messaging, color and icon elements, if there is a “blocker” on the page, the other notifications are downplayed to let the blocker notification stand out.

Biz rule #2: Nice to have, plays nice with others
Though not critical, “nice to have” information is still necessary. In this case, I’m following the NNG recommendations for a passive action notification and indicator. Meaning, in absence missing critical information, cells may be highlighted per section

However, if a blocker is identified on the same screen as “nice to have” then the prompt will be suppressed to allow the user to focus on the most critical missing information, but a secondary configuration for “nice to have” may remain.

Biz rule #3: Optional is neutral territory
Optional is exactly that, optional. A user doesn’t have to supply it, and if they do, good for them. I’ve chosen to leave these cells status quo, meaning no notification or indicator. The only thing the user will see is an edit icon if she taps or clicks into the cell. This is a pattern used on previous internal UIs accessed by the vendor, as well as a common image for edibility. Having it appear on click or tap is to reduce visual noise, because there is A LOT of data on these screens.

Biz rule #4 Search – make results obvious amongst other indicators
Obviously, with a lot of data, having the search highlight the data that matches the search query assists the user, as there’s not traditional “search results” screen. However, there may be times when cells may be highlighted as “nice to have” prior to and after the search query. Since the search function is a temporal situation, the cells may be highlighted while “nice to have” may be suppressed in order to reduce visual noise and maintain focus.

What’s the old saying, “looks good in theory but how does it look in practice?” Hopefully there will be an opportunity to test the rules soon with real users of the system, and see if I can direct them to react and act appropriately. Time and use will tell if I’ve dialed in the appropriate levels of color, messaging and iconography at the proper times and in the right context.