Web Usability Revisited
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.’
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.
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.
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.