Help defeat the wall of text.

Everybody knows that effective design is very important to any succesful interface – be it an application, a website, a product, or a physical structure. There are lots of reasons behind this, but the one I’m going to talk about today is how design combats the most dreaded wall of text, of which is a victim.

(Note: if you’re not interested in reading this post, just skip to the last paragraph where you can help give your 0.02 cents)

Somebody famous once said that it’s very easy to write. So easy, in fact, until the problem wasn’t with finding things to write about – it was finding things not to write about. The question was how to write concisely: boiling to the essence of what you’re trying to communicate to the audience, and how to present it.

But why is it so terrible? Despite what literature students tell you, people do not like to read. Ideally information should enter their brains without having to make any concious effort whatsoever. As interfaces are all about sharing maximum functionality with the user without sacrificing usability, knowing how to minimise (or present differently) the use of text is very important. Here are a few points to consider when critiquing – it is by no means complete and is not applicable in all scenarios.

You shouldn’t need explanatory paragraphs in your interface.

If the explanation is about your product, it’s ok to have it, but it shouldn’t be as long as a paragraph. If the explanation is about how to use your interface – that is the ultimate evil. The easiest way to remove these is to find isolate the most relevant element of the interface to which the explanation belongs to, then only make that explanation appear if the user is interested in that single option. Another way is to split up your interface into multiple interfaces to reduce the complexity of the things the user has to absorb in one go.

Don’t have more than 10 items in your main navigation.

Unless you expect a lot of repeat visitors who know exactly what they’re doing, of course. The point is that newcomers don’t like choice. They like the illusion of choice, but it is your job as the designer to secretly guide them through to the optimum “first impression” route. If you want to sell a product, you want them to be intrigued by X, then be introduced to Y, then be amazed by Z. And in that order. If you offer a service, you want to think what your target user’s daily functions are, and make sure those are in your main navigation. The rest, stuff it elsewhere.

Icons help. They really do.

Icons speak for themselves. A red X means more than a “No”. A greyed out X means more than a “Not available”. An “i” in a circle means more than “More information”. You can forego the word “Profile” altogether if you use an icon of a person. Plus, icons make your interface look prettier. If anybody isn’t sure what an icon does, they can just hover over it.

Be careful of how you present dates.

Dates are the easiest way to reduce readability of your interface. When given the date 04/05/06, Americans will read it 5th April 2006, Europeans will read it 4th May 2006, and Chinese/Japanese will read it 6th May 2004. The entire string “04/05/06” looks like code, and your brain has to do an awful lot of deciphering to understand it. It’s often best to give a full string “4th May 2006” if it’s in the archives where dates are important, a “Last Month” if the user is likely to only be interested in relative dates, or “4 May” (omitting the year if possible) if space is tight. The date is rarely the most important piece of information in a system, so hide it somewhere that only interested people would see.

Present your text semantically.

On computer systems it’s easy to think of text as lines with line breaks. Instead, get back to thinking of text blocked into paragraphs, with presenting one point per paragraph. If you have a list, use a list. Of course on the internet CSS makes this easy to do.

Create consistent visual format indicators.

Bolding text is good for emphasis, colour signify more information, italics hint at “quoted” text, font sizes represent importance, and alignment influences the workflow. It’s harder to do this on desktop applications, but still possible.

Over the next few weeks I will slowly document exactly how we can put this into practice through a live sample of KDE’s website. I will analyse each page and document it here. My objective is to not only beautify and improve KDE’s website (not only defeating the wall of text, but also improving it all around), but to also increase awareness about this in all of KDE’s applications.

Before I start, I need to collect some qualitative data from you, the community. Simply leave a comment to this post answering the following question:

Do you use (as in, not any subdomains such as the techbase, userbase, dot, etc)

If yes, was it a one-time “tour” use, or do you go to it regularly? If it’s a one-time, what do you expect to offer you? If you go to it regularly, what do you check most often?

Cheers, and until next time!

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  1. well i dont use it so often … just arround the beganing of each month to check if the updates are out yet ( the announcement section).
    also sometimes i go over to the applications section and browse arround … which eventually leads me to

  2. Maybe somewhat unrelated, but I’ve wanting to ask this for a while: why there’s not a link to under the “Developer platform” top menu? Perhaps because has still the old look?

    It would be useful for translators (and potential ones) to have this link, as translating is often an easy entry way to become a kde developer afterwards.

  3. You’re crazy if you think that’s a lot of text. I do like to read. When I read, information enters my brain without any concious effort. Do not fear the words Dion, for if you practice reading it can become effortless for you as well!

    Icons suck. They really do. I thank the gods that KDE lets me eliminate them from my desktop and buttons.

  4. Yes, I use, mostly to read bugfix release notes and find a well supported application. Since I have installed almost all the KDE applications I need, I visit less frequently. There isn’t anything interesting there if you already know KDE.

  5. I visit every few days looking for something interesting to occupy my mind.

    The “Community Blogs” Section is rather unuseful to me; It only displays some randomly selected entries from (not even the most recent 5 or something). So if I want *all* blogs I have to go over there anyway.

    “Latest Announcements” suffers from the same illness.

    Which leaves “Latest Applications and “Latest News” which are very useful to me. Content at and doesn’t change too often so checking once a day or so I miss nothing.

    I don’t use the forum, so I can’t say how useful the links are.

    another thing:
    The “Get KDE software” button is rather misleading: It doesn’t get me any software (link to instead another page explaining why I should get software elsewhere (== my distros repository).

    Hope this helps and good luck.

  6. @Longshot: I like reading too and love text. Just look at my blog layout! However throwing a manual at somebody isn’t a very effective pitch when trying to advertise a product.

    You may feel that icons suck, but keep in mind that KDE’s Oxygen iconset is a very distinctive visual reminder that “this is KDE software”. If you wanted to use marketing jargon, you could call it a brand.

    @Kayra Akman: you say “There isn’t anything interesting there if you already know KDE.” and in its current state, I agree with you. However what can KDE offer you that might entice you to come back?

    During all that rebranding hubbub a while back, one point really struck me: KDE is not a collection of software, KDE is a community. It seems very much that KDE’s website is being treated by you folks as a information source for the software collection, instead of a community site. I’ll dedicate more time to discuss this later outside the confines of a blog comment.

    @Anonymous Coward: you seem to describe to you as a hub which links to other “children” site. I think this was similar to what the original plans were (in dividing the site into clear sections with the main being a router), so your comments are quite helpful. And about the “Get KDE Software” button, this is something which looks as though it could use some rewording.

  7. Do you use No.

    I see has a list of Latest This and Latest That. I assume the forum topics on the right is also a “latest” list. I strongly suspect most people don’t come to the front page of for those things. I think it would be much better to simply get across that those things are available, with links to the respective pages. That is also something you can do in a very visual way, with icons and a few descriptive words.

    By the way, .02 cents is an awfully small amount of money.

  8. KDE user of 9 years or so. I rarely, if ever, use the website and have always imagined it to be publicity front and information place for those totally without any knowledge of what KDE and/or KDE SC is.

    I have gone there a few times to find a link to another kde website, but i could probably count those visits on one hand. I have also gone to the kde website for novelty reasons to read about kde history and see screenshots of early versions.
    The most recent redesign, however, looks really great and the menu is very easy to navigate.

  9. I can’t think of a reason why an average KDE SC user, if any, would like to visit frequently other than looking for an application or a user manual.

    I, OTOH, not being an average user, would visit much more often if the web site were a source for technical articles on desktop technologies, UI design, planned features for future releases, etc. There isn’t even a white paper about why KDE Plasma desktop is the way it is.

    Check the Workspaces pages, there is nothing interesting or useful that would make a Gnome, Mac OS X or even Windows user switch to KDE SC. “It is beautiful and you customize it the way you want” is not enough I guess. More text is not always better, at least there must be the right text.

    KDE is for power users. Power users know where to get info. A simpler or visually more attractive web site won’t make people switch to KDE or KDE users come back more often. But applications can do that. So more emphasis on applications may be the way to go. However KDE superstars (amarok, digikam, KOffice, KDevelop) have their own web sites, so I don’t see a way to make more interesting for average KDE user.

  10. @Dominik: Of course. isn’t _bad_ per se, it is simply faulty in terms of marketing alignment and community usefulness. The wall of text is simply one of the many reasons behind it. So if it can be improved, we should improve it.

    @Ole Christian: Doh! You see past my evil plans!

    @Kayra Akman: I think you’ve highlighted a number of other problems with the site. Thanks for the feedback, but due to lack of manpower I think it’ll be some time until we tackle all of those issues.

  11. One of the things that I find most distraction on is the animation of the Experience Freedom / Experience Freedom banner. Why not make the banner split, so that people can see both options at once?


  12. Correction of my last post: I meant the Experience Freedom / Invest in Freedom banner!

    One of the things that I find most distraction on is the animation of the Experience Freedom / Experience Freedom banner. Why not make the banner split, so that people can see both options at once?


  13. Mike, do you in general find fading slideshows on websites distracting or is it just KDE? If so, can you isolate what you think might be the cause? (I have a few theories myself!)

  14. Sometimes I look at

    1) I hate the slider image.

    2) Quite frankly I think with just a 1/4 page kde image everything would be fairly ok.

    3) Everyone should use ISO dating 20101120 IMHO

  15. @John Jeffers: OK – so you dislike the aesthetics of the slider image (I think they’re pretty ugly too, especially the release ones), and I agree with you that it is too large.

    ISO dating is not going to happen :)

  16. Q:”Do you use (as in, not any subdomains such as the techbase, userbase, dot, etc)”

    A: yes.

    Regurarly. I come to check Latest Announcements, Latest News, Community Blogs, and i use the link for more applications.

  17. Most open source websites don’t seem to be all that tailored to marketing in the traditional sense. But part of what attracts me to them is that they are non-standard and they are designed by hobbyists and not professionals.

    So while your assessment might hold true in a traditional sense, I think the wall is text is what actually attracts geeks to open source. Sure, there is always room for improvement, but is a good example of non-traditional branding and it sure does attract a particularly niche (or peculiar if you prefer!) type of geek!

  18. Well, hari, unfortunately KDE’s aim, as a DE, is not as restricted as a specific distro. KDE has to appeal to all types of users.

    Still, there is room for a little geek here and there :)

  19. I like text but I prefer informative text, for an open source software I want to know in how many days KDE 4.6. gets released, I want to know how the bugs decrease, I want to know about the translation status, the platform availability, I want the latest forum messages, I want to have a site per application with interaction, and I want to discuss in a forum if Redhat has the better KDE than Debian and what features are still missing. I want true and objective data, not enterprise promotional stuff.

    No one needs the sort of enterprise promotional texts. They are not handy. They waste my time. I don’t care if its KDE SC or KDE whatever Plasma. No one understands this, no one cares, it doesn’t impress me. “The KDE community” and its ethics are not important to me. I prefer to have a post which KDE coders will be next at Fosdem. Where do I subscribe to the mailing list? Etc.

  20. I will keep it short:

    “It’s often best to give a full string “4th May 2006″ if it’s in the archives where dates are important, a “Last Month” if the user is likely to only be interested in relative dates, or “4 May” (omitting the year if possible) if space is tight. The date is rarely the most important piece of information in a system, so hide it somewhere that only interested people would see.”

    Best thing is to use ISO 8601
    standard. Sorry if someone feels it should be in their country format but that standard purpose is to make dates easily accessible by international communications, not just those who speak English.

    The standard is


    It is very simple. It is one of the basic standards what have made digital world to actually use computers easily.

    The problem is, people find dates hard to read when person writes as country custom is and there are multiple different ways as already mentioned.

    The solution is, you use international standard what makes it clean and simple so the information does not need to be hided but it allows people just “scan” it quickly without problems.

    Dates are important information, no matter of what. When writing a website the such information are important

    1) When was text written
    2) When was text was updated/edited
    3) What are dates of used sources
    4) What is date when reader commented page

    Using a words for months ain’t problem solver, it actually makes it even worse, as people does not even right away know their own language months by words so accurately than numbers. And when it comes to foreign language written months, people need to start use dictionaries to find out what month it was, and it is translated to text and not number so some people might need to do a second thinking for it.

    Is is much easier to think month number to month name like 5 -> May than vice versa like May -> 5

    By usability point of view, to make text easier to read, people need to use numbers in dates and ISO standard for that if they want to focus text to international instead only for their own country users. And KDE is full of people from different countries and they does their websites, blogs, software to whole world, not just for US citizens or so on. And KDE even advertises them to be international.

    So why not actually “place your money where your mouth is” and do what usability tests and international standard say about dates format?

    2011-12-31 instead 31 November 2011 or 31.12.2011

    People really should read this:

    And from same “God of Usability” researcher link archives:
    “Case study: Applying Writing Guidelines to Web Pages improved usability by 159% when rewriting sample pages from a popular website”

    Does KDE want to follow international writing guidelines?

    The article (blog poster etc) does not know behalf of the reader is a written text important or not. The information what is written (technical spec, story, opinion, vision, idea) can have greater value in future for multiple readers.

    So if they didn’t remember or know to bookmark a site where that information was, they need to try to find out it via internet search engines. And that can be problem, even that we have Google (or Bing and so on).

    Readers are backtracing their memories, on what site they read about it, who wrote it and then what was the subject. When going trough multiple sites, people really want just to scan the text for that information what they search, not to read the whole site again.

    So every information what is numeric like dates are. Must be written by numbers, not by letters.
    2011-12-31 is best form for dates and so on. It does not need to be set as bold or cursive but just let it be. Dates are important, like trying to find out when product was released or who wrote first about the specific subject.

    Oh and about the short vs long articles:

  21. Fri13, is currently stuffed with usability problems and that’s just the beginning of all the problems it has.

    Which is why we’re _redoing_ everything.

    You posting about the old problems what we’ve already outlined and are working to fix in a new version (ie. not the version currently show in this post) is not helping at all.

  22. @ Dion Moult, but the blog post say clearly that the dates are wanted to be hided and I pointed out it is smart thing at all.
    And post says clearly that the redone version will suggest to use non-standard formation to date, what I pointed out it is not smart thing either.

    I were not talking about the old site, but what was blogged to be “a list of fixes” to current broblems and used someway in new coming version.

    Unless the whole blog post was about stupid suggestions what should never be folloed by anyone?

  23. Fri13, there are many more things to consider when deciding what date to use. I do agree with the ISO standard and don’t disregard it, but things like relative dates, ie “Last Month” or absolute dates “15 May” are much more important in some cases than ISO standards. For instance, in feeds from the community, or major releases when advertising a numerical date isn’t appropriate.

    For all other purposes, however, ISO is recommended, of course.

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