Poll: How do you differentiate commands, etc. in text?

Subject: Poll: How do you differentiate commands, etc. in text?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Diana Ost <Diana -dot- Ost -at- msmcorp -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 28 Jun 2006 15:41:40 -0400

Diana Ost wondered: <<In my current situation, we are using InfoMapping for all documentation, which I am in the process of working over for online use. I am removing the underlines and quotes around terms, key names, window names, commands, etc., for a couple of reasons: it's just too much visual noise in the documents, and because using font changes is probably more effective than the old-fashioned typewriter style text.>>

Sounds like a good plan. That's particularly true for underlines, since they're the standard visual identifier for a hyperlink, and you shouldn't use the same visual cue to mean two different things. If you're thinking of using XML at some point in the future, it may even be worthwhile developing tags such as <button name> and <window name> to identify these interface features. Then you can format them all, instantly and on the fly, simply by defining the appropriate style sheet.

<<I have seen many different ways to handle this (from different fonts like bold and italic, to icons embedded in the paragraph, to nothing at all.).>>

That's because there's no unequivocal "best practice". Many options work equally well; there may be "statistically significant" differences, but I haven't yet seen any evidence that there are _practically significant_ (i.e., meaningful) differences.

Note, however, that inline icons are the best choice if the thing you're referring to is primarily graphical. A button or icon that is entirely textual probably doesn't benefit much from being presented as a graphical icon, but doing is is more visually consistent if most other buttons are graphical. A graphic is always better than a verbal description if the icon is graphical.

<<I prefer to keep things simple, but still want to make some terms stand out (and am somewhat opposed to italics for online use--too hard to read). We also do a lot of policies and procedures, so instructions are for more than just software use. >>

Italics shouldn't be a problem, particularly for short bits of text, if you're using an appropriate font. On the whole, it's become a standard in printed material because it achieves the right balance between effectiveness (communicating a difference with the surrounding text) and obtrusiveness (enough to notice but not so much that it distracts).

<<What do each of you do (if anything) to emphasis text for online use?>>

I use words combined with quotation marks where necessary. For example:
Open the Menu menu and click the Button button. Then enter your name in the "Name" field.

The quotes aren't strictly necessary, but I find that in the work I was doing when I came up with this approach, there were enough situations where some form of additional emphasis was required that it was a helpful and relatively nonintrusive way to provide that emphasis. This may have been largely because many of the buttons and field names were multiple words, and did not use title caps in the interface; the lack of such emphasis (capitalization where none would ordinarily appear in a sentence) led to enough potential misreadings that I felt the quotes were necessary for emphasis. Using them everywhere, even where they might not have been necessary, was consistent.

<<So far, I am doing something like this for procedures: 1. Click this (bold) and the Blah (bold) window appears.>>

I'm skeptical about boldface because with enough commands, the printed page starts to look like your pen was blobbing ink, and the help topic looks like the monitor is misbehaving. You'll often see typographers refer to this as "the ransom note syndrome" because the text looks pasted together. The bold stands out enough that it attracts too much attention, and that's rarely a good thing. Italics has been a traditional solution in print because it stands out less, but does differ enough from its surroundings that it achieves the goal of emphasis.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Poll: How do you differentiate commands, etc. in text?: From: Diana Ost

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