Labels are hard

I’ve been joking at work about writing a series of “case studies in why things are hard” for some time now and I’m finally inspired to do so.

We often get interface requests that seem perfectly reasonable and simple but once we start to work out the details, it becomes clear that it’s much more complex. It seems like more and more we are faced with interface issues that just seem nearly impossible to solve. Labels seem to be the hardest of all.

I’ve come to the conclusion that an ideal label is: true, short, and meaningful but for any complex need, you can’t have all three at once.



In our library catalog, we want to provide users a clear way to easily skim search results for items that have full-text online by designating their online status using an icon and label. However, we can’t just use the label “Full-text” because it’s not true since some of these items aren’t actually text but are images, audio, video, etc. On top of that, multi-volume materials (newspapers, journals, magazines) may have mixed full-text access (e.g., vols 1-20 are full-text but 21-44 are not). We currently use the label “available online” which is short and meaningful but isn’t exactly true since not all the items in the records are truly available online. We’re currently thinking about changing it to “electronic resources,” which isn’t very meaningful. Another alternative we’re testing is “some content fully available” which is true but isn’t exactly short or meaningful. In fact, preliminary results of our usability testing shows that students recognize this is an accurate label but say wouldn’t be inclined to pay attention to it. This leads me to think that for this particular task, going with something meaningful & short (but not exactly true) might be our best option.

Suggestions welcome!

4 thoughts on “Labels are hard”

  1. Interesting formulation! Not sure I’d agree that the three can NEVER exist at the same time. However, I can’t come up with any counterexamples off the top of my head, so, yeah…

    Also, I might suggest “understandable” in place of “meaningful”. The difference between “true” and “meaningful” seemed to me a bit subtle on first read. (Bear in mind I haven’t had my coffee yet.)

  2. It’s not very elegant, but how about “Some content online”? Or, if you’ve decided not to use a qualifier, “Online access”? Labels are tough. I’ll be interested to hear what you end up using.

  3. I recalled reading this post while I was at school. A quick google search took me here. Thanks for the post. I could use this with some tweaks (if I may) to explain the rationale behind my label choices to my clients.

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