Web Usability Revisited

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If you’re reading every word of this post, then you’re in the minority.

More than ten years ago, usability expert Jakob Neilsen published a paper called How Users Read On The Web. He began the paper by saying: ‘They don’t.’

Butterfly Readers

Instead web users flit about like butterflies in a garden, pausing at anything that takes their interest. So what does that mean for people who are writing web content? It means that we have to write differently from the way we write for print. Here’s a recap of Neilsen’s advice, which is still relevant, in my opinion.

Keep It Short

Since people aren’t going to read a large block of text, then there’s no point in having one. A typical web page has more in common with a news story than a magazine article. It’s short and to the point – anywhere from 250 to 500 words, as a rough guide. Longer articles tend to be broken into several pages, and there’s no guarantee that a reader will get past the first page.

Inverted Pyramid

That leads to the next point, structure. Use the inverted pyramid. That means putting the key information at the start so that readers will get the information you want them to have. If you were writing for print, this information might be your conclusion. For the web, you need to tell readers up front.

One Point Per Paragraph

If you manage to hook the reader, then there’s plenty of time to expand and to tell them why you reached your conclusion. But you have to do it gradually, using a single point per paragraph. Within each paragraph, make the first sentence count if you want readers to get to the second.

Use Signposts

One way to slow readers down and make them look at your content is to use signposts, such as sub headings, bold text and bulleted lists. These make it easy for web readers to scan the text, but also make them stop and look further.

Finally, Neilsen highlights the value of linking out. In part, this provides something else to make readers stop. Links also establish your credibility because they show that you have done some research.

Neilsen went on to publish many more columns on web usability, which discuss other aspects such as using images, but I believe the basic advice is a good starting point for all web content writers.

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7 thoughts on “Web Usability Revisited”

  1. Well I feel like a statistic now…I did -exactly- what that paper said most people do when reading articles on the web.

    But you are correct; I find it much easier (and effective) to read blog posts when people outline things with bullet points, numbers, and bolded headings, because I can sift through and see if there’s anything actually worth reading, or if it’s the same thing I’ve seen repeated across the web about five times previous.

  2. It really works, doesn’t it, Trevor?

    Kristi, I need the reminder sometimes too. Crafting a post like this is a good chance to practice what I preach.

  3. I am not using sub headers the way you do it. However, I am using numbering system to separate each point that I want to explain. I think this is also the same.

    You are right, we must help our readers read our posts especially if they seem to find in your posts they really need.

    This is one of the good reasons why you have many readers, you consider us as customers and you always find ways to help us the easier way.


  4. With the exponential growth of the internet over the last 10-15 years, this new form of writing is the only way to catch the eyes of potential audiences. If you write for the web, this is a good reminder for how to format articles. The attention span of the average web-surfer is probably on par with a toddler’s. Hook, hook, hook!

  5. For successful article writer, it is vital to hit the nail on the top right from the onset as that grabs and help retain the interest of the reader while you expand the issue in signposts. Having signposts as paragraphs also helps a lot as they switch on the reader’s curiosity to see how the issue is specifically reflected in each of the highlighted points. I use both bullets and numbering.

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