Fixed Elements And Overlays In XD: Incredibly Easy And Fun Methods For Your Prototypes
(This article is kindly sponsored by Adobe.) A fixed element is an object you set to a fixed position on the artboard, allowing other items to scroll underneath. This way, you get a realistic simulation of scrolling on desktop and mobile. With the new overlay feature, you can simulate interactions such as lightbox effects and submenus.
How do famous brands use fixed elements and overlays? Well, let’s take a look at some examples to get some inspiration first.
In this tutorial, we will learn how to set a menu bar as a fixed element and how to apply an overlay transition in a prototype, to simulate a menu opening from the click of a button. Both examples will be done in a mobile template, so that we can see our simulation in action directly on our mobile device. I’ve also included an Illustrator file with icons, which you can use to set up your examples quickly.
Let’s get started.
Preparing The Mobile Template
Open Adobe Xd, and choose the “iPhone 6/7/8 Plus” template. Then, go to File → Save As and choose a name to save your file (mine is mobile.xd).
Let’s create a restaurant app in which people can select what to order from a list of food.
We will create two home layouts. The first one will be a long page, which we will use to see how fixed navigation works. The second will have a full-screen image, and the user will be able to click and open a menu bar that overlays the home screen.
To get started, click on the artboard icon on the left side, and click to the right of your current artboard. This will create a second identical artboard, near the first one.
Let’s begin to design our elements, starting with the navigation bar. Click on the Rectangle tool (R) and draw a shape 414 pixels wide and 48 pixels tall. Set its color as #DE4F4F.
I’ve prepared some icons in Illustrator to use in our layout. Just open the Illustrator file I’ve provided, and drag and drop the icons in your library, as shown below:
In doing so, your icons will be automatically uploaded to your Adobe XD library, too.
To learn more about how to use libraries in different apps, read my earlier article, in which I go over some examples of how to add icons and elements to a library (in Illustrator, for instance) and then access them by opening that library in other apps (XD, in this case).
Once you have added the icons, open your XD library. You should see the icons in place:
Drag and drop the icons on your artboard, as shown below. Position them, and make sure they are all about 25 pixels wide.
Because we need our icons to be white, we have to modify these. We can directly modify them in the library, as demonstrated in my previous tutorial. With that done, we’ll see them updated in XD directly, without having to drag them from the library again.
Now that the icons we want are in place, let’s create a logo. Let’s call this app “Gusto”. We’ll simply use the Text tool to add it. (I’m using the Leckerli One font here, but feel free to use whichever you like.) Align the logo to the middle of the navigation bar by clicking “Align center (horizontally)” in the right sidebar.
Group all of the navigation elements together, and call the group “Menu”. To do this, select all elements in the left panel, right-click and choose “Group”.
Let’s add a beautiful hero image. I selected one from Pexels. Drag it on your artboard, and resize its height to 380 pixels.
Now, click on Rectangle tool (R), and draw a rectangle the same size as the hero image, and place it on the image. Set a gradient for the rectangle’s color, using the values shown in the image below.
(If you’d like more information about gradients, feel free to see my previous tutorial on how to apply them in XD.)
Insert some white text on the hero image and a circle for a button. Place a little circle with a number on the cart icon as well; we will need it later.
Next, let’s increase the artboard’s height. We have to do that in order to insert new elements and to create the scrolling simulation.
After double-clicking on the artboard, set its height to 1265 pixels. Be sure that “Scrolling” is set to “Vertical” and that the “Viewport Height” is set to 736 pixels. A little blue marker will allow you to set the scrolling boundary towards the bottom of the artboard, as seen below:
Let’s add in our content: Gusto’s mouthwatering menu. Click on the Rectangle tool (R) to create a rectangle for the picture that we will add.
Drag and drop a picture directly into the box we just created; the image will automatically fit in it. Click on it once, and drag the little white circle from an angle inwards, in order to round all of the angles. Their values should be around 25, as shown in the picture below. Get rid of the border by unchecking the border value in the right sidebar.
Click on the Text tool (T), and write a title on the right side of the image. I chose Lato as the font, at 14 pixels. Feel free to use another font, but maintain the 14-pixel size.
Grab the Text tool (T) again, and write some lines for the description (Lato, 10 pixels) and for the price (Lato, 16 pixels).
Take the Rectangle tool (R) and draw a rectangle of 100 by 30 pixels. Color it with the same orange we used on the button for the hero image; add the text “Add to Cart” with the Text tool (T); and add the cart icon from the library. All of these steps are covered in the short video below:
Finally, click on “Repeat Grid” to create a grid for this section. Once that’s done, we can change images and text easily, as shown in the video below:
If you want to learn more about how to create grids, follow my tutorial.
Finally, let’s add a rectangle for the footer, with the text “Gusto” in the center. Set the rectangle’s fill color to #211919.
Yes! We’ve completed the first template design. Let’s set up our second template before we begin prototyping.
For our second mobile layout, just copy and paste the navigation and hero section from the first layout, and size the hero image to be full screen. Then, add a “Try Now” button to it.
In the short video below, I show you how to copy and paste elements into the second artboard, create a new button with the Rectangle tool (R) and write text on it with the Text tool (T).
Excellent! Let’s move on and create our prototypes.
Setting Fixed Elements
We want to make the top navigation of our layout fixed, making it stick to its position as we scroll the artboard.
Click on your “Menu” group to select it, and select “Fixed Position” in the right sidebar.
Important: In order for all elements to scroll under the menu, the menu should be on top of all other elements. Simply place the menu folder at the top, in the left sidebar.
Now, to see your fixed navigation in action, simply click on the “Desktop Preview” button and try scrolling. You should see this:
Tremendously simple, isn’t it?
Setting Overlay Elements
To see how overlays work in XD, we first need to create the elements that will be overlaid. When you click an item in the menu, what would you expect to happen? Exactly: A submenu should appear.
Let’s create three different submenus, like the ones in the image below, using the Rectangle tool (R). I chose a rectangle because the menu will overlay the screen, so it will cover not the whole artboard but just a part of it.
Follow the video below to see how I created the three overlay menus. You will see that I used the Rectangle tool (R), Line tool (L) and Text tool (T). We’re using rectangles to create the menu backgrounds because we need an object to overlay the screen. I’ve included the icons in the Adobe Illustrator file.
Below, you’ll see how I use “Repeat Grid” and how I modify elements inside of it.
Here is the final result:
We will work on the second home layout at this point.
Set the visual mode to “Prototype”, selecting it from the top left of the screen.
Next, double-click on the little hamburger menu icon, and drag and drop the little blue arrow onto the “Overlay 1” artboard. When the popup window appears, choose “Overlay” and “Slide right”. Then, click the “Desktop Preview” button to see it in action.
Let’s do the same thing with the user icon and cart icon. Double-click on the user icon in Prototype mode, and drag and drop the little blue arrow onto the “Overlay 2” artboard. When the popup window appears, choose “Overlay” and “Slide left”. Then, click the “Desktop Preview” button to see it in action.
Now, double-click on the cart icon in Prototype mode, and drag and drop the little blue arrow onto the “Overlay 3” artboard. When the popup windows appears, choose “Overlay” and “Slide left”. Click the “Desktop Preview” button again to see it work.
We’re done! These great new features are super-easy to learn, and they’ll add a new level of interactivity simulation to your prototypes.
Quick tip: Want to preview the layout on your phone? Just upload your XD file to Creative Cloud, download the XD app for mobile, and open your document.
Here’s what we have learned in this tutorial:
set and create mobile layouts and elements,
set fixed elements,
use overlays to simulate a click-to-open submenu.
Where would you use fixed elements or overlays? Feel free to share your examples in the comments below!
If I have a set of items, which have variable lengths of content inside, and set their parent to display: flex, the items will display as a row and line up at the start of that axis. In the example below my three items have a small amount of content and are able to display the content of each item as an unbroken line. There is space at the end of the flex container which the items do not grow into because the initial value of flex-grow is 0, do not grow.
If I add more text to these items, they eventually fill the container, and the text begins to wrap. The boxes are assigned a portion of the space in the container which corresponds to how much text is in each box — an item with a longer string of text is assigned more space. This means that we don’t end up with a tall skinny column with a lot of text when the next door item only contains a single word.
This behavior is likely to be familiar to you if you have ever used Flexbox, but perhaps you have wondered how the browser is working that sizing out, as if you look in multiple modern browsers you will see that they all do the same thing. This is down to the fact that detail such as this is worked out in the specification, making sure that anyone implementing Flexbox in a new browser or other user agent is aware of how this calculation is supposed to work. We can use the spec to find this information out for ourselves.
The CSS Intrinsic And Extrinsic Sizing Specification
You fairly quickly discover when looking at anything about sizing in the Flexbox specification, that a lot of the information you need is in another spec — CSS Intrisnic and Extrinsic Sizing. This is because the sizing concepts we are using aren’t unique to Flexbox, in the same way that alignment properties aren’t unique to Flexbox. However, for how these sizing constructs are used in Flexbox, you need to look in the Flexbox spec. It can feel a little like you are jumping back and forth, so I’ll round up a few key definitions here, which I’ll be using in the rest of the article.
The preferred size of a box is the size defined by a width or a height, or the logical aliases for these properties of inline-size and block-size. By using:
Or the logical alias inline-size:
You are stating that you want your box to be 500 pixels wide, or 500 pixels in the inline direction.
The min-content size is the smallest size that a box can be without causing overflow. If your box contains text then all possible soft-wrapping opportunities will be taken.
The max-content size is the largest size the box can be to contain the contents. If the box contains text with no formatting to break it up, then it will display as one long unbroken string.
Flex Item Main Size
The main size of a flex item is the size it has in the main dimension. If you are working in a row — in English — then the main size is the width. In a column in English, the main size is the height.
Items also have a minimum and maximum main size as defined by their min-width or min-height on the main dimension.
Working Out The Size Of A Flex Item
Now that we have some terms defined, we can have a look at how our flex items are sized. The initial value of the flex properties are as follows:
The flex-basis is the thing that sizing is calculated from. If we set flex-basis to 0 and flex-grow to 1 then all of our boxes have no starting width, so the space in the flex container is shared out evenly, assigning the same amount of space to each item.
This shows us that figuring out what auto means is pretty important if we want to know how Flexbox works out the size of our boxes. The value of auto is going to be our starting point.
When auto is defined as a value for something in CSS, it will have a very specific meaning in that context, one that is worth taking a look at. The CSS Working Group spend a lot of time figuring out what auto means in any context, as this talk for spec editor Fantasai explains.
We can find the information about what auto means when used as a flex-basis in the specification. The terms defined above should help us dissect this statement.
“When specified on a flex item, the auto keyword retrieves the value of the main size property as the used `flex-basis`. If that value is itself auto, then the used value is `content`.”
So if our flex-basis is auto, Flexbox has a look at the defined main size property. We would have a main size if we had given any of our flex items a width. In the below example, the items all have a width of 110px, so this is being used as the main size as the initial value for flex-basis is auto.
However, our initial example has items which have no width, this means that their main size is auto and so we need to move onto the next sentence, “If that value is itself auto, then the used value is content.”
We now need to look at what the spec says about the content keyword. This is another value that you can use (in supporting browsers) for your flex-basis, for example:
flex: 1 1 content;
The specification defines content as follows:
“Indicates an automatic size based on the flex item’s content. (It is typically equivalent to the max-content size, but with adjustments to handle aspect ratios, intrinsic sizing constraints, and orthogonal flows”
In our example, with flex items that contain text, then we can ignore some of the more complicated adjustments and treat content as being the max-content size.
So this explains why, when we have a small amount of text in each item, the text doesn’t wrap. The flex items are auto-sized, so Flexbox is looking at their max-content size, the items fit in their container at that size, and the job is done!
The story doesn’t end here, as when we add more content the boxes don’t stay at max-content size. If they did they would break out of the flex container and cause overflow. Once they fill the container, the content begins to wrap and the items become different sizes based on the content inside them.
Resolving Flexible Lengths
It’s at this point where the specification becomes reasonably complex looking, however, the steps that need to happen are as follows:
First, add up the main size of all the items and see if it is bigger or smaller than the available space in the container.
If the container size is bigger than the total, we are going to care about the flex-grow factor, as we have space to grow.
If the container size is smaller than the total then we are going to care about the flex-shrink factor as we need to shrink.
Freeze any inflexible items, which means that we can decide on a size for certain items already. If we are using flex-grow this would include any items which have flex-grow: 0. This is the scenario we have when our flex items have space left in the container. The initial value of flex-grow is 0, so they get as big as their max-width and then they don’t grow any more from their main size.
If we are using flex-shrink then this would include any items with flex-shrink: 0. We can see what happens in this step if we give our set of flex items a flex-shrink factor of 0. The items become frozen in their max-content state and so do not flex and arrange themselves to fit in the container.
In our case — with the initial values of flex items — our items can shrink. So the steps continue and the algorithm enters a loop in which it works out how much space to assign or take away. In our case we are using flex-shrink as the total size of our items is bigger than the container, so we need to take away space.
The flex-shrink factor is multiplied by the items inner base size, in our case that is the max-content size. This gives a value with which to reduce space. If items removed space only according to the flex-shrink factor then small items could essentially vanish, having had all of their space removed, while the larger item still has space to shrink.
There is an additional step in this loop to check for items which would become smaller or larger than their target main size, in which case the item stops growing or shrinking. Again, this is to avoid certain items becoming tiny, or massive in comparison to the rest of the items.
All that was simplified in terms of the spec as I’ve not looked at some of the more edge-casey scenarios, and you can generally simply further in your mind, assuming you are happy to let Flexbox do its thing and are not after pixel perfection. Remembering the following two facts will work in most cases.
If you are growing from auto then the flex-basis will either be treated as any width or height on the item or the max-content size. Space will then be assigned according to the flex-grow factor using that size as a starting point.
If you are shrinking from auto then the flex-basis will either be treated as any width or height on the item or the max-content size. Space will then be removed according to the flex-basis size multiplied by the flex-shrink factor, and therefore removed in proportion to the max-content size of the items.
Controlling Growing And Shrinking
I’ve spent most of this article describing what Flexbox does when left to its own devices. You can, of course, exercise greater control over your flex items by using the flex properties. They will hopefully seem more predictable with an understanding of what is happening behind the scenes.
By setting your own flex-basis, or given the item itself a size which is then used as the flex-basis you take back control from the algorithm, telling Flexbox that you want to grow or shrink from this particular size. You can turn off growing or shrinking altogether by setting flex-grow or flex-shrink to 0. On this point, however, it is worth using a desire to control flex items as a time to check whether you are using the right layout method. If you find yourself trying to line up flex items in two dimensions then you might be better choosing Grid Layout.
Debugging Size Related Issues
If your flex items are ending up an unexpected size, then this is usually because your flex-basis is auto and there is something giving that item a width, which is then being used as the flex-basis. Inspecting the item in DevTools may help identify where the size is coming from. You can also try setting a flex-basis of 0 which will force Flexbox to treat the item as having zero width. Even if this isn’t the outcome that you want, it will help to identify the flex-basis value in use as being the culprit for your sizing issues.
A much-requested feature of Flexbox is the ability to specify gaps or gutters between flex items in the same way that we can specify gaps in grid layout and multi-column layout. This feature is specified for Flexbox as part of Box Alignment, and the first browser implementation is on the way. Firefox expects to ship the gap properties for Flexbox in Firefox 63. The following example can be viewed in Firefox Nightly.
As with grid layout, the length of the gap is taken into account before space is distributed to flex items.
In this article, I’ve tried to explain some of the finer points of how Flexbox works out how big the flex items are. It can seem a little academic, however, taking some time to understand the way this works can save you huge amounts of time when using Flexbox in your layouts. I find it really helpful to come back to the fact that, by default, Flexbox is trying to give you the most sensible layout of a bunch of items with varying sizes. If an item has more content, it is given more space. If you and your design don’t agree with what Flexbox thinks is best then you can take control back by setting your own flex-basis.
Ever spent an hour (or even a day) working on something just to throw the whole lot away and redo it in five minutes? That isn’t just a beginner’s code mistake; it is a real-world situation that you can easily find yourself in especially if the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t well understood to begin with.
This is why I’m such a big proponent of upfront design, user research, and creating often multiple prototypes — also known as the old adage of “You don’t know what you don’t know.” At the same time, it is very easy to look at something someone else has made, which may have taken them quite a lot of time, and think it is extremely easy because you have the benefit of hindsight by seeing a finished product.
This idea that simple is easy was summed up nicely by Jen Simmons while speaking about CSS Grid and Piet Mondrian’s paintings:
“I feel like these paintings, you know, if you look at them with the sense of like ‘Why’s that important? I could have done that.’ It’s like, well yeah, you could paint that today because we’re so used to this kind of thinking, but would you have painted this when everything around you was Victorian — when everything around you was this other style?”
I feel this sums up the feeling I have about seeing websites and design systems that make complete sense; it’s almost as if the fact they make sense means they were easy to make. Of course, it is usually the opposite; writing the code is the simple bit, but it’s the thinking and process that goes into it that takes the most effort.
With that in mind, I’m going to explore building a text box, in an exaggeration of situations many of us often find ourselves in. Hopefully, by the end of this article, we can all feel more emphatic to how the journey from start to finish is rarely linear.
A Comprehensive Guide To User Testing
So you think you’ve designed something that’s perfect, but your test tells you otherwise. Let’s explore the importance of user testing. Read more →
We all know that careful planning and understanding of the user need is important to a successful project of any size. We also all know that all too often we feel to need to rush to quickly design and develop new features. That can often mean our common sense and best practices are forgotten as we slog away to quickly get onto the next task on the everlasting to-do list. Rinse and repeat.
Today our task is to build a text box. Simple enough, it needs to allow a user to type in some text. In fact, it is so simple that we leave the task to last because there is so much other important stuff to do. Then, just before we pack up to go home, we smirk and write:
There we go!
Oh wait, we probably need to hook that up to send data to the backend when the form is submitted, like so:
<input type="text" name="our_textbox">
That’s better. Done. Time to go home.
How Do You Add A New Line?
The issue with using a simple text box is it is pretty useless if you want to type a lot of text. For a name or title it works fine, but quite often a user will type more text than you expect. Trust me when I say if you leave a textbox for long enough without strict validation, someone will paste the entire of War and Peace. In many cases, this can be prevented by having a maximum amount of characters.
In this situation though, we have found out that our laziness (or bad prioritization) of leaving it to the last minute meant we didn’t consider the real requirements. We just wanted to do another task on that everlasting to-do list and get home. This text box needs to be reusable; examples of its usage include as a content entry box, a Twitter-style note box, and a user feedback box. In all of those cases, the user is likely to type a lot of text, and a basic text box would just scroll sideways. Sometimes that may be okay, but generally, that’s an awful experience.
Thankfully for us, that simple mistake doesn’t take long to fix:
Now, let’s take a moment to consider that line. A <textarea>: as simple as it can get without removing the name. Isn’t it interesting, or is it just my pedantic mind that we need to use a completely different element to add a new line? It isn’t a type of input, or an attribute used to add multi-line to an input. Also, the <textarea> element is not self-closing but an input is? Strange.
This “moment to consider” sent me time traveling back to October 1993, trawling through the depths of the www-talk mailing list. There was clearly much discussion about the future of the web and what “HTML+” should contain. This was 1993 and they were discussing ideas such as <input type="range"> which wasn’t available until HTML5, and Jim Davis said:
“Well, it’s far-fetched I suppose, but you might use HTML forms as part of a game playing interface.”
“Makes the browser code cleaner — they have to be handled differently internally.”
That’s a fair reason to have <textarea> separate to text, but that’s still not what we ended up with. So why is <textarea> its own element?
I didn’t find any decision in the mailing list archives, but by the following month, the HTML+ Discussion Document had the <textarea> element and a note saying:
“In the initial design for forms, multi-line text fields were supported by the INPUT element with TYPE=TEXT. Unfortunately, this causes problems for fields with long text values as SGML limits the length of attributea literals. The HTML+ DTD allows for up to 1024 characters (the SGML default is only 240 characters!)”
Ah, so that’s why the text goes within the element and cannot be self-closing; they were not able to use an attribute for long text. In 1994, the <textarea> element was included, along with many others from HTML+ such as <option> in the HTML 2 spec.
Okay, that’s enough. I could easily explore the archives further but back to the task.
Styling A <textarea>
So we’ve got a default <textarea>. If you rarely use them or haven’t seen the browser defaults in a long time, then you may be surprised. A <textarea> (made almost purely for multi-line text) looks very similar to a normal text input except most browser defaults style the border darker, the box slightly larger, and there are lines in the bottom right. Those lines are the resize handle; they aren’t actually part of the spec so browsers all handle (pun absolutely intended) it in their own way. That generally means that the resize handle cannot be restyled, though you can disable resizing by setting resize: none to the <textarea>. It is possible to create a custom handle or use browser specific pseudo elements such as ::-webkit-resizer.
It’s important to understand the defaults, especially because of the resizing ability. It’s a very unique behavior; the user is able to drag to change the size of the element by default. If you don’t override the minimum and maximum sizes then the size could be as small as 9px × 9px (when I checked Chrome) or as large as they have patience to drag it. That’s something that could cause mayhem with the rest of the site’s layout if it’s not considered. Imagine a grid where <textarea> is in one column and a blue box is in another; the size of the blue box is purely decided by the size of the <textarea>.
Other than that, we can approach styling a <textarea> much the same as any other input. Want to change the grey around the edge into thick green dashes? Sure here you go: border: 5px dashed green;. Want to restyle the focus in which a lot of browsers have a slightly blurred box shadow? Change the outline — responsibly though, you know, that’s important for accessibility. You can even add a background image to your <textarea> if that interests you (I can think of a few ideas that would have been popular when skeuomorphic design was more celebrated).
We’ve all experienced scope creep in our work, whether it is a client that doesn’t think the final version matches their idea or you just try to squeeze in a tiny tweak and end up taking forever to finish it. So I ( enjoying creating the persona of an exaggerated project manager telling us what we need to build) have decided that our <textarea> just is not good enough. Yes, it is now multi-line, and that’s great, and yes it even ‘pops’ a bit more with its new styling. Yet, it just doesn’t fit the very vague user need that I’ve pretty much just thought of now after we thought we were almost done.
What happens if the user puts in thousands of words? Or drags the resize handle so far it breaks the layout? It needs to be reusable, as we have already mentioned, but in some of the situations (such as a ‘Twittereqsue’ note taking box), we will need a limit. So the next task is to add a character limit. The user needs to be able to see how many characters they have left.
In the same way we started with <input> instead of <textarea>, it is very easy to think that adding the maxlength attribute would solve our issue. That is one way to limit the amount of characters the user types, it uses the browser’s built-in validation, but it is not able to display how many characters are left.
So which event handler should we choose?
Intuitively, it may make sense to choose the change event. It works on <textarea> and does what it says on the tin. Except, it only triggers when the element loses focus so it wouldn’t update while typing.
The keypress event is triggered when typing any character, which is a good start. But it does not trigger when characters are deleted, so the counter wouldn’t update after pressing backspace. It also doesn’t trigger after a copy/paste.
This one gets quite close, it is triggered whenever a key has been pressed (including the backspace button). So it does trigger when deleting characters, but still not after a copy/paste.
This is the one we want. This triggers whenever a character is added, deleted or pasted.
var textEl = document.querySelector('textarea')
var counterEl = document.querySelector('.counter')
var maxLength = 200
textEl.addEventListener('input', (val) =>
var count = textEl.value.length
counterEl.innerHTML = $count/$maxLength
Browser Compatibility And Progressive Enhancement
Progressive enhancement is a mindset in which we understand that we have no control over what the user exactly sees on their screen, and instead, we try to guide the browser. Responsive Web Design is a good example, where we build a website that adjusts to suit the content on the particular size viewport without manually setting what each size would look like. It means that on the one hand, we strongly care that a website works across all browsers and devices, but on the other hand, we don’t care that they look exactly the same.
It’s all very well testing on various browsers and thinking about the various permutations of how devices could serve the website in a different way, but are users able to use it?
Generally speaking, no. I’m consistently shocked by user testing; people never use a site how you expect them to. This means that user testing is crucial.
It’s quite hard to simulate a user test session in an article, so for the purposes of this article, I’m going to just focus on one point that I’ve seen users struggle with on various projects.
The user is happily writing away, gets to 0 characters remaining, and then gets stuck. They forget what they were writing, or they don’t notice that it had stopped typing.
This happens because there is nothing telling the user that something has changed; if they are typing away without paying much attention, then they can hit the maximum length without noticing. This is a frustrating experience.
One way to solve this issue is to allow overtyping, so the maximum length still counts for it to be valid when submitted but it allows the user to type as much as they want and then edit it before submission. This is a good solution as it gives the control back to the user.
That way, the user would see that they are over the limit without being cut off while typing. There would still need to be validation to make sure it isn’t submitted, but that is worth the extra small bit of work to make the user experience far better.
Designing The Overtype
This gets us to quite a solid position: the user is now able to use any device and get a decent experience. If they type too much it is not going to cut them off; instead, it will just allow it and encourage them to edit it down.
There’s a variety of ways this could be designed differently, so let’s look at how Twitter handles it:
Twitter has been iterating its main tweet <textarea> since they started the company. The current version uses a lot of techniques that we could consider using.
As you type on Twitter, there is a circle that completes once you get to the character limit of 280. Interestingly, it doesn’t say how many characters are available until you are 20 characters away from the limit. At that point, the incomplete circle turns orange. Once you have 0 characters remaining, it turns red. After the 0 characters, the countdown goes negative; it doesn’t appear to have a limit on how far you can overtype (I tried as far as 4,000 characters remaining) but the tweet button is disabled while overtyping.
So this works the same way as our <textarea> does, with the main difference being the characters represented by a circle that updates and shows the number of characters remaining after 260 characters. We could implement this by removing the text and replacing it with an SVG circle.
The other thing that Twitter does is add a red background behind the overtyped text. This makes it completely obvious that the user is going to need to edit or remove some of the text to publish the tweet. It is a really nice part of the design. So how would we implement that? We would start again from the beginning.
You remember the part where we realized that a basic input text box would not give us multiline? And that a maxlength attribute would not give us the ability to overtype? This is one of those cases. As far as I know, there is nothing in CSS that gives us the ability to style parts of the text inside a <textarea>. This is the point where some people would suggest web components, as what we would need is a pretend <textarea>. We would need some kind of element — probably a div — with contenteditable on it and in JS we would need to wrap the overtyped text in a span that is styled with CSS.
What happens then if you tweet over the character limit? Twitter reloads the page with an error message saying “Your Tweet was over the character limit. You’ll have to be more clever.” No, Twitter. You need to be more clever.
The only way to conclude this dramatization is a retrospective. What went well? What did we learn? What would we do differently next time or what would we change completely?
We started very simple with a basic textbox; in some ways, this is good because it can be all too easy to overcomplicate things from the beginning and an MVP approach is good. However, as time went on, we realized how important it is to have some critical thinking and to consider what we are doing. We should have known a basic textbox wouldn’t be enough and that a way of setting a maximum length would be useful. It is even possible that if we have conducted or sat in on user research sessions in the past that we could have anticipated the need to allow overtyping. As for the browser compatibility and user experiences across devices, considering progressive enhancement from the beginning would have caught most of those potential issues.
So one change we could make is to be much more proactive about the thinking process instead of jumping straight into the task, thinking that the code is easy when actually the code is the least important part.
On a similar vein to that, we had the “scope creep” of maxlength, and while we could possibly have anticipated that, we would rather not have any scope creep at all. So everybody involved from the beginning would be very useful, as a diverse multidisciplinary approach to even small tasks like this can seriously reduce the time it takes to figure out and fix all the unexpected tweaks.
Back To The Real World
Okay, so I can get quite deep into this made-up project, but I think it demonstrates well how complicated the most seemingly simple tasks can be. Being user-focussed, having a progressive enhancement mindset, and thinking things through from the beginning can have a real impact on both the speed and quality of delivery. And I didn’t even mention testing!
I went into some detail about the history of the <textarea> and which event listeners to use, some of this can seem overkill, but I find it fascinating to gain a real understanding of the subtleties of the web, and it can often help demystify issues we will face in the future.
A Reference Guide For Typography In Mobile Web Design
With mobile taking a front seat in search, it’s important that websites are designed in a way that prioritize the best experience possible for their users. While Google has brought attention to elements like pop-ups that might disrupt the mobile experience, what about something as seemingly simple as choice of typography?
The answer to the typography question might seem simple enough: what works on desktop should work on mobile so long as it scales well. Right?
While that would definitely make it a lot easier on web designers, that’s not necessarily the case. The problem in making that statement a decisive one is that there haven’t been a lot of studies done on the subject of mobile typography in recent years. So, what I intend to do today is give a brief summary of what it is we know about typography in web design, and then see what UX experts and tests have been able to reveal about using typography for mobile.
Understanding The Basics Of Typography In Modern Web Design
Look, I know typography isn’t the most glamorous of subjects. And, being a web designer, it might not be something you spend too much time thinking about, especially if clients bring their own style guides to you prior to beginning a project.
That said, with mobile-first now here, typography requires additional consideration.
Let’s start with the basics: terminology you’ll need to know before digging into mobile typography best practices.
Typography: This term refers to the technique used in styling, formatting, and arranging “printed” (as opposed to handwritten) text.
Typeface: This is the classification system used to label a family of characters. So, this would be something like Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, Comic Sans, etc.
Font: This drills down further into a website’s typeface. The font details the typeface family, point size, and any special stylizations applied. For instance, 11-point Arial in bold.
Size: There are two ways in which to refer to the size (or height) of a font: the word processing size in points or the web design size in pixels. For the purposes of talking about mobile web design, we use pixels.
Here is a line-by-line comparison of various font sizes:
As you can see in WordPress, font sizes are important when it comes to establishing hierarchy in header text:
Weight: This is the other part of defining a typeface as a font. Weight refers to any special styles applied to the face to make it appear heavier or lighter. In web design, weight comes into play in header fonts that complement the typically weightless body text.
Here is an example of options you could choose from in the WordPress theme customizer:
Kerning: This pertains to the space between two letters. It can be adjusted in order to create a more aesthetically pleasing result while also enhancing readability. You will need a design software like Photoshop to make these types of adjustments.
Tracking: Tracking, or letter-spacing, is often confused with kerning as it too relates to adding space in between letters. However, whereas kerning adjusts spacing between two letters in order to improve appearances, tracking is used to adjust spacing across a line. This is used more for the purposes of fixing density issues while reading.
To give you a sense for how this differs, here’s an example from Mozilla on how to use tracking to change letter-spacing:
Leading: Leading, or line spacing, is the amount of distance granted between the baselines of text (the bottom line upon which a font rests). Like tracking, this can be adjusted to fix density issues.
If you’ve been using word processing software for a while, you’re already familiar with leading. Single-spaced text. Double-spaced text. Even 1.5-spaced text. That’s leading.
The Role Of Typography In Modern Web Design
As for why we care about typography and each of the defining characteristics of it in modern web design, there’s a good reason for it. While it would be great if a well-written blog post or super convincing sales jargon on a landing page were enough to keep visitors happy, that’s not always the case. The choices you make in terms of typography can have major ramifications on whether or not people even give your site’s copy a read.
These are some of the ways in which typography affects your end users:
Reinforce Branding Typography is another way in which you create a specific style for your web design. If images all contain clean lines and serious faces, you would want to use an equally buttoned-up typeface.
Set the Mood It helps establish a mood or emotion. For instance, a more frivolous and light-bodied typeface would signal to users that the brand is fun, young and doesn’t take itself seriously.
Give It a Voice It conveys a sense of personality and voice. While the actual message in the copy will be able to dictate this well, using a font that reinforces the tone would be a powerful choice.
Encourage Reading As you can see, there are a number of ways in which you can adjust how type appears on a screen. If you can give it the right sense of speed and ease, you can encourage more users to read through it all.
Allow for Scanning Scanning or glancing (which I’ll talk about shortly) is becoming more and more common as people engage with the web on their smart devices. Because of this, we need ways to format text to improve scannability and this usually involves lots of headers, pull quotes and in-line lists (bulleted, numbered, etc.).
Improve Accessibility There is a lot to be done in order to design for accessibility. Your choice of font plays a big part in that, especially as the mobile experience has to rely less on big, bold designs and swatches of color and more on how quickly and well you can get visitors to your message.
Because typography has such a diverse role in the user experience, it’s a matter that needs to be taken seriously when strategizing new designs. So, let’s look at what the experts and tests have to say about handling it for mobile.
Typography For Mobile Web Design: What You Need To Know
Too small, too light, too fancy, too close together… You can run into a lot of problems if you don’t strike the perfect balance with your choice of typography in design. On mobile, however, it’s a bit of a different story.
I don’t want to say that playing it safe and using the system default from Google or Apple is the way to go. After all, you work so hard to develop unique, creative and eye-catching designs for your users. Why would you throw in the towel at this point and just slap Roboto all over your mobile website?
We know what the key elements are in defining and shaping a typeface and we also know how powerful fonts are within the context of a website. So, let’s drill down and see what exactly you need to do to make your typography play well with mobile.
In general, the rule of thumb is that font size needs to be 16 pixels for mobile websites. Anything smaller than that could compromise readability for visually impaired readers. Anything too much larger could also make reading more difficult. You want to find that perfect Goldilocks formula and, time and time again, it comes back to 16 pixels.
In general, that rule is a safe one to play by when it comes to the main body text of your mobile website. However, what exactly are you allowed to do for header text? After all, you need to be able to distinguish your main headlines from the rest of the text. Not just for the sake of calling attention to bigger messages, but also for the purposes of increasing scannability of a mobile web page.
The Nielsen Norman Group reported on a study from MIT that covered this exact question. What can you do about text that users only have to glance at? In other words, what sort of sizing can you use for short strings of header text?
Here is what they found:
Short, glanceable strings of text lead to faster reading and greater comprehension when:
They are larger in size (specifically, 4mm as opposed to 3mm).
Lowercase lettering required 26% more time for accurate reading than uppercase, and condensed text required 11.2% more time than regular. There were also significant interaction effects between case and size, suggesting that the negative effects of lowercase letters are exacerbated with small font sizes.
I’d be interested to see how the NerdWallet website does, in that case. While I do love the look of this, they have violated a number of these sizing and styling suggestions:
Having looked at this a few times now, I do think the choice of a smaller-sized font for the all-caps header is an odd choice. My eyes are instantly drawn to the larger, bolder text beneath the main header. So, I think there is something to MIT’s research.
Flywheel Sports, on the other hand, does a great job of exemplifying this point.
There’s absolutely no doubt where the visitors’ attention needs to go: to the eye-catching header. It’s in all caps, it’s larger than all the other text on the page, and, although the font is incredibly basic, its infusion with a custom handwritten-style type looks really freaking cool here. I think the only thing I would fix here is the contrast between the white and yellow fonts and the blue background.
Just remember: this only applies to the sizing (and styling) of header text. If you want to keep large bodies of text readable, stick to the aforementioned sizing best practices.
2. Color and Contrast
Color, in general, is an important element in web design. There’s a lot you can convey to visitors by choosing the right color palette for designs, images and, yes, your text. But it’s not just the base color of the font that matters, it’s also the contrast between it and the background on which it sits (as evidenced by my note above about Flywheel Sports).
For some users, a white font on top of a busy photo or a lighter background may not pose too much of an issue. But “too much” isn’t really acceptable in web design. There should be no issues users encounter when they read text on a website, especially from an already compromised view of it on mobile.
Which is why color and contrast are top considerations you have to make when styling typography for mobile.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has clear recommendations regarding how to address color contrast in section 1.4.3. At a minimum, the WCAG suggests that a contrast of 4.5 to 1 should be established between the text and background for optimal readability. There are a few exceptions to the rule:
Text sized using 18-point or a bold 14-point only needs a contrast of 3 to 1.
Text that doesn’t appear in an active part of the web page doesn’t need to abide by this rule.
The contrast of text within a logo can be set at the designer’s discretion.
If you’re unsure of how to establish that ratio between your font’s color and the background upon which it sits, use a color contrast checking tool like WebAIM.
The one thing I would ask you to be mindful of, however, is using opacity or other color settings that may compromise the color you’ve chosen. While the HEX color code will check out just fine in the tool, it may not be an accurate representation of how the color actually displays on a mobile device (or any screen, really).
To solve this problem and ensure you have a high enough contrast for your fonts, use a color eyedropper tool built into your browser like the ones for Firefox or Chrome. Simply hover the eyedropper over the color of the background (or font) on your web page, and let it tell you what the actual color code is now.
This website has a rotation of images in the top banner of the home page. The font always remains white, but the background rotates.
Based on what we know now, the purple is probably the only one that will pass with flying colors. However, for the purposes of showing you how to work through this exercise, here is what the eyedropper tool says about the HEX color codes for each of the backgrounds:
Here is the contrast between these colors and the white font:
Grey: 2.81 to 1
Beige/taupe: 1.42 to 1
Purple: 11.59 to 1.
Clearly, the grey and beige backgrounds are going to lend themselves to a very poor experience for mobile visitors.
Also, if I had to guess, I’d say that “Try a risk-free Starter Set now.” is only a 10-point font (which is only about 13 pixels). So, the size of the font is also working against the readability factor, not to mention the poor choice of colors used with the lighter backgrounds.
The lesson here is that you should really make some time to think about how color and contrast of typography will work for the benefit of your readers. Without these additional steps, you may unintentionally be preventing visitors from moving forward on your site.
Plain and simple: tracking in mobile web design needs to be used in order to control density. The standard recommendation is that there be no more than between 30 and 40 characters to a line. Anything more or less could affect readability adversely.
While it does appear that Dove is pushing the boundaries of that 40-character limit, I think this is nicely done.
The font is so simple and clean, and the tracking is evenly spaced. You can see that, by keeping the amount of words on a line relegated to the recommended limits, it gives this segment of the page the appearance that it will be easy to read. And that’s exactly what you want your typography choices to do: to welcome visitors to stop for a brief moment, read the non-threatening amount of text, and then go on their way (which, hopefully, is to conversion).
According to the NNG, content that appears above the fold on a 30-inch desktop monitor equates to five swipes on a 4-inch mobile device. Granted, this data is a bit old as most smartphones are now between five and six inches:
Even so, let’s say that equates to three or four good swipes of the smartphone screen to get to the tip of the fold on desktop. That’s a lot of work your mobile visitors have to do to get to the good stuff. It also means that their patience will already be wearing thin by the time they get there. As the NNG pointed out, a mobile session, on average, usually lasts about only 72 seconds. Compare that to desktop at 150 seconds and you can see why this is a big deal.
This means two things for you:
You absolutely need to cut out the excess on mobile. If this means creating a completely separate and shorter set of content for mobile, do it.
Be very careful with leading.
You’ve already taken care to keep optimize your font size and width, which is good. However, too much leading and you could unintentionally be asking users to scroll even more than they might have to. And with every scroll comes the possibility of fatigue, boredom, frustration, or distraction getting in the way.
So, you need to strike a good balance here between using line spacing to enhance readability while also reigning in how much work they need to do to get to the bottom of the page.
The Hill Holliday website isn’t just awesome inspiration on how to get a little “crazy” with mobile typography, but it also has done a fantastic job in using leading to make larger bodies of text easier to read:
Different resources will give you different guidelines on how to create spacing for mobile devices. I’ve seen suggestions for anywhere between 120% to 150% of the font’s point size. Since you also need to consider accessibility when designing for mobile, I’m going to suggest you follow WCAG’s guidelines:
Spacing between lines needs to be 1.5 (or 150%, whichever ratio works for you).
Spacing between paragraphs then needs to be 2.5 (or 250%).
At the end of the day, this is about making smart decisions with the space you’re given to work with. If you only have a minute to hook them, don’t waste it with too much vertical space. And don’t turn them off with too little.
5. Acceptable Fonts
Before I break down what makes for an acceptable font, I want to first look at what Android’s and Apple’s typeface defaults are. I think there’s a lot we can learn just by looking at these choices:
Android Google uses two typefaces for its platforms (both desktop and mobile): Roboto and Noto. Roboto is the primary default. If a user visits a website in a language that doesn’t accept Roboto, then Noto is the secondary backup.
It’s also important to note that Roboto has a number of font families to choose from:
As you can see, there are versions of Roboto with condensed kerning, a heavier and serifed face as well as a looser, serif-like option. Overall, though, this is just a really clean and simply stylized typeface. You’re not likely to stir up any real emotions when using this on a website, and it may not convey much of a personality, but it’s a safe, smart choice.
Apple Apple has its own set of typography guidelines for iOS along with its own system typeface: San Francisco.
For the most part, what you see is what you get with San Francisco. It’s just a basic sans serif font. If you look at Apple’s recommended suggestions on default settings for the font, you’ll also find it doesn’t even recommend using bold stylization or outlandish sizing, leading or tracking rules:
Like with pretty much everything else Apple does, the typography formula is very basic. And, you know what? It really works. Here it is in action on the Apple website:
Much like Google’s system typeface, Apple has gone with a simple and classic typeface. While it may not help your site stand out from the competition, it will never do anything to impair the legibility or readability of your text. It also would be a good choice if you want your visuals to leave a greater impact.
And, so, this now brings me to my own recommendations on what you should use in terms of type for mobile websites. Here’s the verdict:
Don’t be afraid to start with a system default font. They’re going to be your safest choices until you get a handle on how far you can push the limits of mobile typography.
Use only a sans serif or serif font. If your desktop website uses a decorative or handwritten font, ditch it for something more traditional on mobile.
That said, you don’t have to ignore decorative typefaces altogether. In the examples from Hill Holliday or Flywheel Sports (as shown above), you can see how small touches of custom, non-traditional type can add a little flavor.
Never use more than two typefaces on mobile. There just isn’t enough room for visitors to handle that many options visually.
Make sure your two typefaces complement one another. Specifically, look for faces that utilize a similar character width. The design of each face may be unique and contrast well with the other, but there should still be some uniformity in what you present to mobile visitors’ eyes.
Avoid typefaces that don’t have a distinct set of characters. For instance, compare how the uppercase “i”, lowercase “l” and the number “1” appear beside one another. Here’s an example of the Myriad Pro typeface from the Typekit website:
While the number “1” isn’t too problematic, the uppercase “i” (the first letter in this sequence) and the lowercase “l (the second) are just too similar. This can create some unwanted slowdowns in reading on mobile.
Also, be sure to review how your font handles the conjunction of “r” and “n” beside one another. Can you differentiate each letter or do they smoosh together as one indistinguishable unit? Mobile visitors don’t have time to stop and figure out what those characters are, so make sure you use a typeface that gives each character its own space.
Use fonts that are compatible across as many devices as possible. Your best bets will be: Arial, Courier New, Georgia, Tahoma, Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS and Verdana.
I think the Typeform website is a good example of one that uses a “safe” typeface choice, but doesn’t prevent them from wowing visitors with their message or design.
It’s short, to the point, perfectly sized, well-positioned, and overall a solid choice if they’re trying to demonstrate stability and professionalism (which I think they are).
When you’re feeling comfortable with mobile typography and want to branch out a little more, take a look at this list of the best web-safe typefaces from WebsiteSetup. You’ll find here that most of the choices are your basic serif and sans serif types. It’s definitely nothing exciting or earth-shattering, but it will give you some variation to play with if you want to add a little more flavor to your mobile type.
I know, I know. Mobile typography is no fun. But web design isn’t always about creating something exciting and cutting edge. Sometimes sticking to practical and safe choices is what will guarantee you the best user experience in the end. And that’s what we’re seeing when it comes to mobile typography.
The reduced amount of real estate and the shorter times-on-site just don’t lend themselves well to the experimental typography choices (or design choices, in general) you can use on desktop. So, moving forward, your approach will have to be more about learning how to reign it in while still creating a strong and consistent look for your website.
(This is a sponsored article.) Color has the potential to make or break product. Today you’ll learn how to use gradients for a website in Adobe XD through a very useful tutorial. In the last Adobe XD release, radial gradients were added so that designers can easily create unique color effects by simulating a light source or applying a circular pattern. Designers can add, remove and manipulate color stops with the same intuitive interface as linear gradients.
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As an open-source community, we should all strive to localize our open-source contributions. Before you can transcribe your digital assets though, you have to internationalize your codebase.
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There’s a reason you can recognize an Apple ad right away. Same with Nike and Airbnb. A big part of that is because of imagery, copy, and layout, but typefaces play a huge role as well.
Although the ROI of having a strong brand is harder to measure than, say, clear button copy, it’s telling that some of the most respected companies in the world have strong design cultures and distinct aesthetics.
Examples of Apple and Nike’s on-brand design aesthetics.
When designing landing pages, you need them to be on-brand, pixel for pixel. Great design is often a tell-tale sign of more sophisticated marketing (and can give you an easier time getting conversions as it can help convey that you’re well established). One of the most obvious elements that need complete design versatility on your landing pages is your typeface.
This is why Unbounce launched built-in Google fonts in September of this year. Now there are 840+ fonts to choose from for all your text and button needs, straight from the text editor’s properties panel:
For some inspiration on how to best use this newfound world of hundreds of fonts, we’re passing the mic to some of our in-house designers at Unbounce. See what they have to say about everything from the best fonts for creating a visual hierarchy to how your text can communicate emotion. Plus see what types of fonts they’re excited to use in their upcoming design work in the builder.
Break the rules where possible
Cesar Martinez, Senior Art Director here at Unbounce, hears a lot of talk about rules. But they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. As he tells us:
“Often when discussing typography with my peers, I hear about all sorts of design principles, some of which I’ve always challenged myself to learn almost as commandments. I realized that is very easy to fall into a vortex of overused principles of visual communication that can potentially damage your integrity (or what some call originality) as a brand.
When designing landing pages that need to feel especially branded or out of the box, try breaking these rules every now and then (then A/B test to see what works and doesn’t). For example, you could use more than two typefaces in one paragraph, break the kerning on your headers, use a big bold-ass serif on a semi-black background and see how it looks with a thin handmade brushed calligraphic font as the subheader…I know it sounds crazy, but this can lead to unexpected results and it’s something I’m really looking forward to doing with the builder’s new built-in Google fonts.”
Some of Cesar’s favorite out-of-the-box examples of typography?
“I love what ILOVEDUST does when it comes to typography. I also recommend reading Pretty Ugly2 as an introspection of “bad” typography applications that succeed in the way they communicate a visual idea.”
Which font is Cesar most excited to use in the builder? A few: Roboto, Playfair, and Abril Fatface.
Denise Villanueva, a Product Designer, created our Unbounce Academy with clear and consistent hierarchy in mind.
“Good typography is the most straightforward way to create a clear content hierarchy. That, above anything else, should be the main criteria of choosing typefaces for your brand.”
Denise provided some specific pointers to help you achieve sound content hierarchy on your landing pages:
“When in doubt, using one font family in 2–3 weights (or two font families in 1-2 weights) will work the vast majority of the time. Using more than three typefaces can be distracting and chaotic — avoid doing it.”
As an example, Unbounce’s Fitspo template features the Raleway font (in all caps for headers and sentence case for regular body copy) and a clear, attention-grabbing header with supporting sections that guide you further down the page. Think of it as presenting your information in clearly defined levels that are easy to read.
Give someone all the feels with typographic details
For Denis Suhopoljac, our Principal User Experience Designer, using the right typography can evoke feelings in your audience:
“Typefaces are all about composition, harmony, and mood rolled into one. By matching the right typography traits with voice, style and tone of a brand, you can enhance the wit, humor, or seriousness of a piece of copy. When it’s done right, typography makes your copy (and your entire brand experience) legible, readable, and appealing.”
Different fonts convey different types of emotions via text — what do these typefaces make you think of? Professionalism? Reliability? Playfulness? Timelessness?
Try incorporating typeface as part of your message
To Ainara Sáinz, our Interactive Designer, good typography can do double duty and save you from having to use other supporting imagery.
“If typography is done well, you don’t always need extra elements like images, backgrounds or even colors to reinforce the message. And sometimes, the execution is so flawless that the audience might not even need to know how to read to understand and feel the message behind it. Like Ji Lee’s Word as Image project—just… wow.”
Image via Ji Lee’s Word as Image project.
Your landing pages can make use of stunning fonts too
Having solid branding does wonders for a brand’s credibility, and our customers have been telling us that they want to get in on the action. Get into the builder today to explore the 840+ new typeface options available, and find your favourite pairings for your next landing page.
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