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Something to think about... / blog
The Usability of Atypical Positioning

Written by on April 7, 2007

I was recently asked what I think about placing elements in unusual places. One example could be to place the search bar in the lower left corner vs. in its usual upper right.

The answer is that it depends. Sometimes it works quite well, and sometimes it doesn't. We have to weigh each element against 4 key usability considerations:

  1. User habits
  2. Frequency of use
  3. Recognition
  4. Efficiency

User Habits

User habits are equal to prior knowledge. We have habits because we are used to and have learned how to do something repeatedly. Habits are extremely persistent. In my studies and work with Change Management I learned that it takes about 3 weeks of repeated use to change from one habit to another.

Frequency of Use

How much time and how often do people use your application. People need time to learn something new, they need time adjust. You have more room to make atypical interfaces if the frequency of use is higher - and you can really annoy people if it is not used repeatedly.


Is the new - atypical - position in a place where people can recognize it? For instance, it is not a good idea to place a menu in the middle of an article, a save document icon in the drawings toolbar, or sign-in box next to a search box. Even atypical placed elements needs to recognizable.


No matter what, the reason for you to place an element differently must be based efficiency. Does it help people to do what they want to do faster and better? If you just place elements different to be - well - different, then people might learn how to use, but they are not likely to like it.

Case: Firefox vs. everything else

Firefox is a good example that it can be beneficial to place an element in a atypical position. Like all other browsers, Firefox has an in-page search feature - allowing you to search for text on the page you are on.

Other browsers display a search dialog box that is often placed above the content. It has worked fine for years. It is how it is done. It is what people are used to.

But then came Firefox - and they moved the in-page search box to the lower-left corner of the screen.

I remember the first time I used it. I pressed CTRL+F, got very confused because it seemed nothing happened. I then went into the menu (Edit &#187 Find on this page...), and again nothing seemed to happen.

My habits told me that I should expect a search dialog. I did eventually find its new location and after a more extensive use, I also get accustomed to it - my habits began to change as my frequency of use grew.

I still do not think that it is very recognizable, but it is useful and efficient to place it in this way. In other browser the search dialog obstructs the page - forcing you to move it around all the time. It is never in the way of the content in Firefox. It is a more efficient solution.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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