Tim's Weblog
Tim Strehle’s links and thoughts on Web apps, software development and Digital Asset Management, since 2002.

Speak the customer’s language and put content first in your DAM UI

We’re currently designing our DAM system’s next generation user interface (UI), and one of the things I’m thinking about a lot is how to present content, and how to navigate it, in a way that makes sense to the people using the DAM.

Mental models

For the DAM vendor, it’s natural to view a DAM system as a generic container for any kind of “assets” or “content”, plus functionality for operating on those assets. If you asked me as a DAM developer for the main sections of a DAM, I’d go for something like “Search, Edit, Upload”.

Here’s how some DAM products name their main navigation items (the first line is from our DC-X product), exemplary of the “generic container” approach:

  • Search | Story Editor | Upload
  • Assets | Browse | Spaces | Collections
  • Content | Your Uploads | Workflows | Your Collections
  • Workspace | Keywords | Products | Collections | Search
  • Collections | Searches | Folders | Favorites

Users usually have a different perspective focused on specific types of content, or its status in a workflow – to them, the main sections might instead look like one of these:

  • Incoming material | In production | Archives
  • Images | Videos | Texts | Office documents
  • Publication A archives | Publication B archives

You’re probably familiar with “mental models”. It’s how you imagine something works and is structured. Obviously, if the user’s mental model of the DAM system doesn’t match what he sees in the DAM UI, it’ll keep him from fully utilizing it. Jakob Nielsen wrote (back in 2010) in Mental Models: “It's amazing how one misconception can thwart users throughout an entire session. […] This is yet another argument for complying with preexisting user expectations whenever possible.”

Speak the user’s language

One aspect of the mental model is the terms used to describe something. A few days ago, I tweeted: “Try explaining your Web app/site to someone unfamiliar with it, and watch out for where the words you use differ from the copy used on site.” (I was thinking of the term “Agent” we use in DC-X, which is fancy tech speak for a saved search that can alert you by e-mail when new matches are found.)

Once more, Jakob Nielsen (from 1995) – 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design: “Match between system and the real world: The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.”

I doubt any DAM system users (except for librarians and IT) ever use the term “assets”. If a new colleague is told to “go to this URL for news agency images and our newspaper archives”, it’ll certainly help a lot to actually see “news agency images” and “newspaper archives” prominently featured on that page.

Never forget that people are busy and try to use the DAM system to get some job done – ideally, in just a few seconds, without them having to adapt to new UI conventions, terminology and information architecture. Try having someone glance at the DAM system for five seconds and then explain to you what that system is about… You might want to read Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think if you haven’t already!

Content first

One more discussion worth having is how prominently to feature content: Is the DAM system screen dominated by lots of system specific “chrome”, or is most screen space dedicated to the content itself? I tweeted my opinion on this: “Content is king. So let’s build beautiful Web sites showcasing our customers’ digital creations instead of rolling out generic #DAM UIs.”

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a screenshot of an image search in our current DC-X UI. The screen space occupied by the content the user was looking for is highlighted in blue. The space where the navigation matches the user’s mental model of how the content is structured is outlined in red:

I know the comparison is a bit unfair, but I’d rather dedicate much more space to the content itself, maybe like this:

What do you think? (Sorry that I haven’t gotten around to implementing comments on my blog yet. You know how to reach me via e-mail or Twitter.)

Update (2016-08-03): I think Flickr does a pretty good job at putting content first. Here’s the details view of one of my photos on Flickr:

Flickr image details screenshot