Web Sites Should Work, Not Wow

Throughout the web’s history, the ease with which one can author content has inspired novice developers to over-design web pages to the extent they become visual noise. So it’s always refreshing to find enhancements to sites that add subtle functionality rather than gratuitous flash.

The New York Times recently introduced a new site feature that enables readers to look up words online. When a word on a web page is selected, a small question mark appears, like in this screen shot:

When Texting Is Wrong - The Moral of the Story Blog - NYTimes.com-2

Clicking on the question mark opens a definition of the selected word in a new browser window or tab.

I like this. The feature is a superb use of contemporary web technologies and it’s implemented in a subtle and refined manner that doesn’t interrupt a reader’s experience with the content.

That said, I’ve seen a better implementations of word look-up that functions in a more contextual fashion. It’s actually my all-time favourite feature in the Mac OS: the (admittedly clumsy) Control-Command-D keystroke:

When Texting Is Wrong - The Moral of the Story Blog - NYTimes.com-1

So the Times’ new feature could be argued as redundant for Mac users, though it’s a tad easier to discover and use.

I’m not sure there’s any reason the Times couldn’t have replaced the question mark with a simple in-place definition. After all, many sites can display in-place previews of entire web pages, like so:

Interfaces Should Work, Not Wow « Geek Life

Even in its rudimentary form, however, the Times word reference feature is a great example of how a web page’s interface can function to enhance, rather than distract from, content.

By the way, the screen shots are from When Texting is Wrong, a very interesting ethical take on the matter of text messaging in social settings.