Do you remember how your High School English teacher graded your papers?  Mine all used red pen and circled things and wrote comments in the margin.  I still do this today when I write something important.  I print a copy, grab a red pen, and turn into a ruthless editor on the lookout for just a few simple things, like using fewer words.

But red pen and comments in the margin doesn’t only apply to writing.  You can apply the same principles and concepts to a user interface.  Take a screenshot of your application, print it out, and find yourself a red Bic.  There’s something special about writing on and drawing over an image of your application because it’s something you probably never do.  Editing a screenshot in Photoshop is good, too, though sometimes not as satisfying.

Working example

Below is a before and after screenshot of a single sidebar in FoodHub Pro that shows my Red Pen and Comments in the Margin thinking.  My software is constantly evolving and improving, and there’s no need to let ego get in the way of a great UI.  It might be that this sidebar could be refined further if we find that users don’t actually need all of the widgets.

The “After” image has fewer words, fewer lines, no distracting headers, and is shorter overall with no loss of functionality.

Use a Red Pen and Comments in the Margin and let me know how your UI turns out.  I’d love to see more before/after examples.

sidebar-side-by-side

FoodHub Pro sidebar with "red pen and comments in the margin" editing

#1:  Use fewer words

How many times have you heard someone explaining something and they said “What that means is …”  These words don’t say anything.  Just say what it means, don’t preempt.

What that means is be thrifty with words.”

The first four words mean nothing and the last four mean everything.  Take your red pen and cross through half of that sentence.

What words can I cut from my sidebar?  ”New Purchase Order” and “Choose a grower …” can be concisely written as “New PO for grower …”  That’s a 33% word discount!

#2:  Avoid clutter

Don’t make me think, don’t make me read, and especially don’t hide the few words I must read beneath words I want to ignore.

The headers in my sidebar have no purpose other than to be bigger and bolder than the words that have meaning, like the “From” and “to” labels and “Show only” which implies filtering capability.

#3:  Remove stuff

Do we really need headers?  Headers are generally meant to delineate blocks of stuff, which I think it particularly well suited by wells.  Headers are big, bold words that aren’t important.  They are too tall.  Wells, on the other hand, provide excellent delineation of things and implies depth on a page.   With fewer meaningful words remaining in a well, the purpose of the widget becomes obvious and you don’t need a header to explain what it is.

Are there any form fields that aren’t really needed?  Our customers don’t change business models very often (read: never), which means the type of Purchase Order created never changed.  We tucked that option away on a config screen and dropped it from our form.  It simply wasn’t needed.

The Results Have Been Measured

Without any loss of functionality and with an immeasurable increase in clarity and simplicity, we can measure results by counting what remains.

  1. 30% of words removed
  2. 100% of tall and bold headers removed
  3. 100% of bold form field headers removed
  4. 0% change in distinct widgets with wells replacing horizontal lines
  5. 0% loss of functionality
  6. Increased clarity and simplicity:  immeasurable

Red Pen and Comments in the Margin works as well for interface design as it did for my old English teacher.  It cuts through clutter and simplifies by eliminating anything that doesn’t directly and succinctly address the task at hand.  Everything in the design is subject for removal, from redundant or unnecessary words to unused elements to the use of white space.  Each item in a design should fight for its life because a good editor always has a red pen handy.