Monday, 11 August 2008

Making notes user-friendly

Readers reasonably report difficulties when flicking back and forth from text to endnotes in editions of classic novels. What can designers do to help them?

There’s obviously a need for discretion in cueing notes in a text intended for continuous reading. One really wants the reader to be able to decide whether to follow up any cue to a note, or simply let the text wash over them. So, first question, what cueing marks to use? An incrementing/sequential system, or a single mark for all notes? Superior numbers or a symbol system?

Oxford English Novels, a hardback (later paperback) series of the 50s and 60s, used notes numbered by page. This means that almost all notes are cued by single-digit numbers, reducing the disruption in the appearance of the line. InDesign can handle by-page numbering. The notes at the end were identified in the following way:

Page 4. (1) It droppeth like the gentle rain: Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, iv. i. 181.

A problem here is that the start of each note is identical (‘Page‘), and the note number has to be parenthesized to distinguish it from the page number. The lemma (the words quoted from the actual text that are being glossed) is therefore some way into the note. The reader’s operation in seeing a note is as follows:

1. notice the cue
2. notice the words immediately before the cue
3. notice the current page number
4. turn to the back of the book
5. scan through the notes to find ‘Page X’
6. scan to see the relevant note number – if there is only one note to a page, then the note number is omitted as unnecessary
7. confirm that the lemma matches the words you are expecting
8. read the note

Probably the most difficult part of this operation is 5 – the identical starts to notes and the consistent running headline (simply ‘Explanatory Notes’) don’t help.

When OENs were re-purposed as [Oxford] World’s Classics in the 70s, the system was perpetuated. You might still find an OWC with this system. Newly-set OWCs used a system with much more help provided for the reader in the design of the notes pages, but with a less helpful cueing system in the text. Instead of a sequence of numbers, a single cue mark was used, the asterisk. Because asterisks vary in design from font to font, including some which don’t look like asterisks (Bembo and Plantin, for example, have 5-pointed starts instead of asterisks, and Ehrhardt, the default typeface for OWCs, has a very hairy asterisk that fills in at small sizes) it was decided to standardize of Baskerville asterisks, whatever the text face. A model for this is the annotation in many Norton texts, where a degree sign (º) is used.

The presentation of the notes was re-thought with a stub column for the page number (which is inserted only when the page number changes, and with the lemmas, still italicized, brought to the start of the note itself in the main column.

91crinkum-crankum: a winding way.
abating: a reduction in price.

This system puts a bit more work on to the reader in the book text, because the step of noting the likely lemma (the context of the note) is now the critical step, but provides more help in the actual look-up:

1. notice the cue
2. notice the words immediately before the cue
3. notice the current page number
4. turn to the back of the book
5. scan through running headlines to find ‘Notes to Page X’
6. scan down the stub column to find ‘Page X’
7. scan down the main column to find the lemma that matches the words you are expecting
8. read the note

The use of the stub column, and the use of a vertical space between each note (the latter admittedly used in the OEN system) are the essential components. Essentially the notes are presented as a continuous table, whereas in the OENs they were a simple list. But the use of the page information in the running headline is a crucial piece of redundancy (redundancy meaning the duplication or re-presentation of information in a way that helps the reader) allowing for stage 5 in the reader’s process. A further consideration is that the page extents in these running headlines (‘123–134’) should probably be set in full rather than in a space-saving convention (‘123–34’).

As an aside, superior numbers are now available in correctly designed form in OpenType fonts (PostScript fonts used to be very variable in their support) so it’s easier to specify numbers that align correctly and blend in colour with the text. There isn’t any excuse for using normal figures scaled and aligned as superiors 123 – which were often too light, too narrow, and too high, unless the designer had carefully specified the parameters to be used.

I'll add some illustrations shortly.

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