Flat Sheets or Cards: Some Thoughts on Timeline Design

Which is the best timeline design? Different designers have different answers. My observation is that the flat sheet style, which means all information runs continuously on the same page with a horizontal line between two pieces, is a better choice for a multiple-user timeline. For an individual’s timeline, just like this site, the card style serves better.

The reason is simple. When you browse through a multiple-user timeline, like that on Twitter, you can distinguish one user from another by their profile pictures (avatars), nicknames (IDs), and their personal propensities as digital citizens, so jutting separators are not necessary. Cards, providing a higher level of separation, would be redundant in this case and may lead to eye strain.

However, if a timeline only displays a single user’s data, you may want to opt for the card style because processing a cascade of homogeneous information littered with faint dividers is not an easy task, particularly when the page layout is poorly rendered. Some social networking sites, such as Twitter and Weibo, display a single user’s profile and posts on one page, with his or her avatar and ID (nickname) repeating again and again. The multiple repetition of identity information is probably unavoidable since both timelines on each site — public and personal — adopt the same layout. Yet in this case, the card style is still better than the flat sheet style, for it effectively prevents cognate information from clustering, thus offering higher legibility.

As such, Jason Shew’s Timeline has turned into a card-style timeline for better reading experience.

Bottom line:

For a single-user timeline: cards with no repetition of user ID (e.g. the new version of this site) > cards with repetition of user ID (e.g. Weibo) > flat sheets with no repetition of user ID (e.g. the old version of this site) > flat sheets with repetition of user ID (e.g. Twitter)

For a multiple-user timeline: flat sheets (e.g. Twitter) > cards (e.g. Weibo), because different user IDs already help readers distinguish and a higher level of division is unnecessary

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