Usability for Web Editors
This is all about words - writing styles, sentences, paragraphs, bullet points, highlights and the correct expressions for links - how to add usability to the words on your Web pages and make them easier for visitors to read.
People don't read Web pages the same way they read novels. That's because there's too much information on the Web and a lot of it is nonsense, or at least irrelevant. Only a stupid person would read every word of every Web page they hit.
Stay or Leave?
Within a couple of seconds, most visitors will assess your page and decide whether to stay or leave. If your page is truly usable, then you'll want to help them with this decision. You must present the key issues covered on the page in a way that can be scanned in a few seconds.
The bits they'll scan are the title, first couple of sentences, anything highlighted or distinctive near the top of the page, and subtitles near the top of the page, so these are your opportunity to show what the page is all about.
Happily, search engines work in a similar way, looking at early sentences and headings, so you'll do yourself a double favour if you get all these elements right. You'll help your readers assess your page properly and you'll also get appropriate listings in search engine indexes.
Once your visitor has decided to stay, they become more tolerant. The way you present information further down the page becomes less important. They've already invested their faith in you and you can aim for less abbreviation and more flow.
Except some of the undecideds will scan the whole page, hoping it might come right in the end, so even at the bottom of the page you still need some scannable elements to help the undecideds make up their minds.
They're irrelevant, surely? Well, no. If somebody scans your page and decides to leave, they're looking for new avenues and here's your chance to redirect them to somewhere else on your site. That's why the best sites have links near the top of their pages to similar but not quite the same kind of material, hoping to pick up leavers and take them to a page that's more relevant.
Headings and subheadings
It's a shame, but if you're setting up your pages for easy scanning then you have to be wary of witty headlines and subtitles. All headings need to be meaningful.
One technique to get over this constraint is to use long titles that are half rational and half artistic. That way you get to cover your keywords and show what the page is all about, but also show a bit of spark. For example "Chaos in the Financial Markets - Has the Juggler Dropped the Balls?"
Search engines give priority to anything with an HTML <H> tag. So put your headings and subheadings within <H> tags (h1, h2, h3 and so on) rather than creating the same effect using bold and font size. You can use non-heading mark-up for anything you want to highlight but don't want to draw to the attention of indexing robots.
Accessibility rules require that headings are used in a rational cascade, h1 followed by h2 and so on (none missed), and that <strong> is used in situations where the highlight has structural significance, as in a subtitle, and bold <b> where the highlight is non-structural, for example when highlighting keywords.
Yes, lots of them. Paragraph breaks help readers to digest information. On Web pages you should aim for two or three sentences per paragraph. BBC News aims for single sentence paragraphs, but the end result looks a little overdone, although it is easy to read.
Should be short. The modern rules of grammar say you don't need to worry about improperly formed sentences, for example without a verb.
If a sentence has a subclause, try to rewrite it or split it for easier reading. Any sentence with more than one subclause should definitely be split. Here's an example of a sentence with too many subclauses. The shopkeeper, whistling to himself, looked up at the highest shelf, chose a pack, stood on tiptoes to reach it, and banged it down on the counter in front of me. That might be OK in a novel, but not on a Web page.
If you write a sentence with two commas, look to see if it has a subclause. Most simple sentences contain just one comma or none at all.
Although it's important to write simple sentences, don't overdo it and remove all the life and colour from your writing. An occasional long sentence, or an unusual but inessential description, can add entertainment and make your page easier to read.
If you have a list, turn it into bullet points. Lists are tedious to read and bullet points help to break up blocks of grey text, so you'll be turning a negative into a positive.
Keywords in bold
One technique to improve scannablity is to highlight keywords in bold. This is worth considering if you've done your best with subtitles yet still lots of your keywords are lost in the mass of text, for example in a page of technical instructions. But usually it shouldn't be necessary.
Web pages should be shorter than their hardcopy equivalents. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen recommends cutting hardcopy originals by 50%, but if the original is well written you might get away with a reduction of 30%.
In the past, written sentences were more formal than sentences in speech, but that old formality is fast disappearing. Yet our normal conversations are a little too relaxed and poorly structured to copy down verbatim. Modern writing comes somewhere between the two extremes. It avoids the formality of old fashioned writing but maintains more structure than normal speech.
If you have something tricky to write, think about how you would explain it to a friend in normal speech, then improve on the structure and tighten up the word use. It's especially useful to do this if your starting point is a very formal document.
Long words are generally harder to read than short ones, so you should try to avoid them. Some long words are more difficult than others. We use certain long words in everyday speech, and these are relatively acceptable. For example the word "occasionally" is long but also very common. Whereas a word like "interposition" isn't something you'd normally say, so you should try to avoid it when you write.
This speech test is a good way to check whether a long word is acceptable or should be rewritten. If you would say the word when talking, it's OK. If you wouldn't use it in speech, don't use it in writing.
The test is also helpful with specialist vocabulary. Some long scientific words are irreplaceable. Even though they might sound clumsy, you would use them if you were talking about that scientific subject because there's no real alternative. This means they're acceptable in specialist writing too.
The easiest measure to use is the Flesch index offered by Microsoft Word. Choose Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar, and near the bottom of the dialogue box switch on Show Readability Statistics. Then run a spelling and grammar check and you'll get the stats at the end.
You can copy the content of an HTML document and paste it into Word to use this measure.
This page rates over 65 on the index, which is high. Anything over 60 is good. Over 50 is acceptable. With technical and scientific documents you'll be punished for the long words, but it should still be possible to creep over the 50 mark. For high scores you need short words, short sentences and plenty of paragraphs.
If your audience is international, try to limit your vocabulary. There are more people in the world who speak English as a second language than speak it as mother tongue - half a billion of them in India alone.
If you're not sure how to limit your own vocabulary, then image your audience is made up of eleven year olds.
Uncommon words are more acceptable when they're in clear context. The word "verbatim" was used earlier in this article, but in a way that would still make sense to anybody who doesn't know what it means.
Most international readers learn British grammar rather than American grammar. Fortunately there are only a few differences between the two, and most people can't even tell the difference.
It's a good idea to avoid local cultural references. For example, talking about "fifth grade" is meaningless to most people outside North America.
Words and expressions used for hyperlinks
Adding links that lead to other pages is usually the responsibility of the Web Editor, and it's important to use the right words and expressions for linking. The basic rule is, try to give a decent description of where the link goes to. Single word links are not a good idea unless they lead to a general menu associated with that word. A good link is more likely to use five or six words.
The more description you give, the more likely a visitor is to use the link. You may even need to tag a few sentences of description on to the hyperlinked words.
Don't think that your visitor will click through a mysterious link to find out where it leads. Visitors avoid clicking through unclear links because they know there's a high risk they'll be wasting their time - this has been documented in usability tests.
Here's another tip: don't use different expressions for the same link, even on different pages. Visitors expect consistency. And never use the same expression for two different link destinations. That's confusing too (and surprisingly common).
As every Web editor knows, the Web is full of irrelevant nonsense. That's what your visitors are expecting to find when they arrive at your site. You can give them a pleasant surprise.
copyright Foxglove Media Ltd 2004