Lisa Notation

A really useful tool for technical support is to tell the user concisely where to look on the computer screen. Lisa notation is a simple way of doing that.

Lisa notation starts by dividing a rectangle such as the screen or a window into quarters and labeling the quarters A, B, C and D.


And then, in each quadrant, divide it into 9 sections, numbered like the dial of a phone.


Although that chart has a lot of clutter, it’s never needed in practice. You can estimate them automatically. Picking the quadrant is easy and then dividing it into 9ths uses a skill familiar to anyone who dials a phone.

With this technique, you can verbally point the person to the right part of the screen. Dividing the screen into 36 pieces this way is really easy. It’s something that can be understood instantly.

For example, if you’re helping someone with Microsoft Word, you could say ‘Click Draw at A-2 and then when it opens, near C-1 click Drawing Canvas.” Alternatively, helping someone with Firefox, you could say “select the item at C-3 that looks like books leaning on a bookshelf and then at Lisa A in the menu that comes up, click History.”

The last example shows that there can be a couple of variations. One is that you might only give the first letter if the area is small. Alternatively, you could just give a number “Lisa 5” to mean the center of the screen as if there were a 3 x 3 grid over the whole area.

The other thing to remark is that you would specify the location relative to the current area of interest instead of the full screen. For example in a dialog box, you would give the location relative to the dialog instead of the full screen. In a Windows “Save As” dialog, you could tell the user to “type the file name you want starting at the File Name edit box near C-5” regardless of where the dialog is on the screen.

Other situations that would really benefit from this notation are computer documentation and help files. When someone describes the steps to solve a problem, the directions would be much more precise and understandable if the writer would use Lisa notation. On the help page “how to send an email,” showing where would really help to someone inexperienced  Saying “Click in the subject line and type a subject” isn’t helpful enough. Someone that really needs it would appreciate the extra help.

Conversely, I might help someone on the phone, and I might not know exactly what their screen is showing. It could make the phone call go smoother if I would ask them to read to me what is near C-7.

Artists and art critics could use this notation quite effectively. What is supposed to be in the blank space of Mona Lisa’s B-6? It looks like da Vinci just got tired of working on the painting when he got there and quit.