Tips for effective informational content

What’s the issue?

There are books you can read and sites to explore about good writing for the web. Yet I still see so many of the basic guidelines being broken.

It’s important to note that what counts as good writing will vary according to context. A good marketing blurb that gets you excited about a product or travel destination will usually differ in style from straight factual information, which may again vary from the way that functional error messages are written. On top that those contexts, writers often have to factor in a Brand tone of voice. Is it formal, or playful, or quirky? As you move along the scale from inspirational to factual there is generally less opportunity to bring in a tone of voice – but some brands do. Bringing in tone of voice often means that you need more words and a turn of phrase that can get in the way of clarity, which needs to take precedence.

There are exceptions, but generally when you get to facts, people just want the punchy facts, and then they want to leave. You might get an amusing error message, and it can work. It can also become annoying.

In this post I’m looking at the middle ground where you want to present factual information. You want to make it easy for people to find the information that’s relevant to them, and present it in a way that is unambiguous as far as possible. It’s not a completely comprehensive list of dos and don’ts (that would be a  book).

Use bullets

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that people don’t read websites or apps like they read novels. Users have a goal – they’re not there for the pleasure of your prose. They scan, looking for the cues and keywords that relate to their goal. If the information that you want to impart is a series of individual facts, then structure it as bullets, don’t write it into a sentence.

Here’s a small example from the Theatre Royal Windsor.

Paragraph from Theatre Royal

This would be better structured as three bullet points – and it doesn’t then need the ‘please note’. ‘Drink’ doesn’t need to be capitalised, and it can be more friendly. For example –

  • You are welcome to bring in water with you, but otherwise food and other drinks may not be brought in.
  • Safety is a priority, so we reserve the right to search bags and packages.
  • Rucksacks, suitcases and large holdalls are not allowed in the auditorium (it would be useful to add if there is a holding area for bags)

British Airways had a promotion. Here were the rules.

BA promotion terms

It’s quite hard to scan that paragraph, and pick out the rules in a way that you can get your head round. It would be better as follows:-

Improved BA layout

Some of the unnecessary verbosity is tidied up. Now it’s ‘We have great fares in all our cabins’ rather than ‘There’s great fares in both premium and non-premium cabins’. The original makes you stop and think. The new version also makes it a lot easier to pick out the relevant dates.

Reading Arts has a page on venue hire. Here’s a grab of some of it:-

Reading Arts venue hire

It would help the reader if some of that first paragraph was broken into bullet points, and then you could see at a glance that there are three venues available for hire. Other aspects of this page are also worthy of comment.

Why on earth is there a link to download venue logos? I don’t know their business, but as a prospective hirer, it doesn’t seem relevant. And the link just seems to be plonked on the page at random. It doesn’t relate to any of the other content, and immediately follows some text telling me to follow the links to find out more. It takes the user to a page full of logos.

Also, there is no explanation of what the four pictures are of – even if you click on them. And although there are three venues (apparently), there are only links to two of them, under an odd heading of ‘related content’. I don’t think it’s ‘related’ content. It IS the content. This page needs some work.

Make sure it’s understandable English (or whatever the language is)

Maersk, the shipping company, have some ‘important information’ for customers. Here’s an example:-

Maersk important information

This has clearly been written by someone who does not have English as their first language, and it hasn’t been checked. This can matter. Even if someone can get the gist of it, it’s hard work. Many times I’ve agonised over nuances of wording, and sometimes people challenge me as to why I’m worrying so much over some minor point of detail. The reason is that to the customer this might be the most important thing they read, and those nuances can really matter. It’s easy to be lazy and write copy that has unintentional ambiguity, and you might never know it. If I say ‘loyalty scheme members must go to gate A’, does that mean only loyalty scheme members can go to gate A ? It doesn’t say, so it’s ambiguous.

Limit line length

If the user is reading your content on a mobile device, this isn’t an issue. If someone has designed for mobile first, and not thought too much about the presentation on desktop, then it’s easy to let line length run amok, although it also happens on non-responsive sites. This is an example from Manchester Airport.

Manchester airport information

It doesn’t matter particularly if you can’t read the text here. The visual impact is of small text size and long lines, which is immediately daunting. Any research that I’ve found suggests that users read faster with long line lengths, but prefer shorter lengths. That reflects my personal preference. 80 characters is a good rule of thumb for line length.

On a positive note, the main questions are in bold. That’s good. It helps the user to scan and pick out the relevant items, and it shows the structure of the page. The sub-headings though are in italic, and it would be better to have a design style that’s between the main heading and body copy that is clearer and easier to read.

Putting the whole thing on a background image of clouds is just annoying, and makes the text harder to read. It doesn’t add information or usability. This isn’t the place for clouds.

Categorise and structure

The Manchester Airport example above does attempt to give structure to the content. Many sites have a really long list of FAQs. This example is from Camp America.

Camp America FAQs

There are 70 FAQs. Other sites have more. In this case, there is a drop-down at the top where you can filter by category. That’s good, but I predict that most people will miss it, as they will look immediately at the FAQs for the information they want, rather than start by looking around the page just to see what other navigation or content there is. Since the categorisation is there, why not turn it on by default, rather than off? It would help.

Put active information at the start of the line

Some time ago I was working on some copy to help customers who were due to fly, and were in wheelchairs, and wanted some help at the airport.

We had some words along the lines of ‘If you call our contact centre, then when you travel we can arrange for help with your wheelchair’. We changed this to ‘If you are in a wheelchair, and need help when travelling…’ Again, people scan content. With bullets and short sentences, they scan the first words of each item looking for relevance. The change that we made meant that people in wheelchairs didn’t have to read the whole thing to know they had found relevant content, and others could stop reading as it didn’t apply to them.

This example is from Standard Chartered Bank:-

Standard Chartered T&Cs

Most of the links start with ‘Terms & Conditions’ and I have to read further to find the relevant ones. I’m on a T&Cs page, so I know it’s all about terms and conditions. Switch the content to ‘English credit card Terms and Conditions’.

Don’t blather

I often see words on sites that don’t add information, and shouldn’t be there. Sometimes, it seems, site owners feel they need some introductory text. This is from Hitched, a UK site about weddings.

Hitched – bridalwear introductory text

Someone has come to the site, usually excited, looking for advice and information. That introductory paragraph adds nothing (IMHO). It’s just there for the sake of it. I predict that most people won’t read it, and those who do get no value from it, which means it’s clutter.

Also, the text is centred, as other text is on the site. This makes it harder to read. We get used to starting at the same left-hand (in English) position for each line. Centred text forces us to take time and effort – even if it’s not conscious – locating the start of the line. It becomes fatiguing if there’s too much.


Users have goals. When it comes to facts, there are some simple guidelines that in most cases will help people to get what they want quickly.

  • Use bullets
  • Write good English (or whatever the language is), and make it unambiguous
  • Limit line length
  • Categorise and structure the content
  • Put active information at the start of the line
  • Don’t blather – make every word justify its existence
  • Don’t centre text
  • Make it physically easy to read – large enough text size, no patterned backgrounds, good contrast

IOT requires a broader skill set than traditional product management

Whilst user interfaces have by definition been based on hardware, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IOT) will likely challenge product managers to develop a broader range of skills. Once, you had a computer, built, let’s say, by IBM. There needed to be an operating system for it, and a young Microsoft came along with DOS, which stood for Disk Operating System. It was before Windows. One company made the hardware, another made the software, and if something didn’t work, there was always a chance that they could say ‘it’s not our fault, it’s the other guys’.

IOT typically encompasses a combined hardware and software offering from one company. Even if parts of the whole are contracted out for the manufacturing, there’s going to be a lead marketing company which takes responsibility for all of it. And the product manager needs to know enough to be able to manage production, software development, UX, and to work with colleagues in marketing. All of that, as well as understanding the market, competitors, customer needs, measurement and feedback processes etc. If hardware and software are developed in-house, being able to manage those processes can sometimes be as challenging as outsourcing – sometimes more so, if, say, the internal IT department has its own budget and autonomy. It’s always critical when engaging with a supplier, internal or external, to agree the terms of engagement up front. Have arguments, have disagreements, but have them before you start, so that once you’re on the path, you have a contract or terms of reference that everyone has signed off on. Everyone has to be aligned to commercial and customer needs.

I have a dog.

My dog

The dog is one of the family, and we want to keep her safe. We have bought her more than one satellite tracker that attaches to her harness. If we lose her, there’s a SIM card in the tracker that connects to an app, and we can see where she is in relation to us, on a map. It’s a great idea.

To make it work, a lot of different elements have to come together. Someone has to have the idea. It can’t just be a good idea, it has to be a commercially viable idea. So there has to be an understanding of the potential market, barriers to entry from competitors (if it’s new), cost and timescales of production, distribution, quality, and product features. That’s the hardware. There are similar consideration for the software, but it’s a different skill set to understand the UX of the app from the features of the hardware, or the technical infrastructure or data sources that are needed. The original tracker we bought wasn’t natively waterproof, but the company had brought out a case for it. Many dogs love to go swimming, as ours does, and they are going to be caught in the rain, so a waterproof tracker has to be high on the list of requirements, but adds to the expense. There’s an equation to be worked out.

Ultimately, the hardware was good, from our point of view. The software was a different story though. It seems that many companies outsource software development not only to India, but also China, as was the case here. The default location for the dog was always in China, which completely threw me when I loaded it up. The whole interface was un-intuitive. If you’re in a panic because you’ve lost your dog, your vision and thinking will shut down, and you have to have something that is utterly simple to use.

The point is that, as ever, the end-to-end experience has to work for the customer. I messaged the company repeatedly about the problems with the software, including the bugs. They didn’t help much. I don’t think they had the skills, or maybe the resources. I wonder if they even owned the IP on the software, or were committed to using a developer thousands of miles away with whom they had poor communication. That’s speculation of course, but something a product manager should be thinking of. Eventually the company stopped supporting the device, leaving me with some useless and expensive hardware, and a useless annual subscription for a SIM card.

Marketing and sales need to understand the benefits to the customer, as is the case with any product. When I realised I had to replace the tracker, I researched the market. One of my requirements was that the tracker should roam across mobile networks. There’s no point having an O2 SIM if there’s only a Vodafone signal. It should work if there’s a signal from any network. If there’s no signal, then you’re out of luck, but at least maximise the chances. This requirement means that either you provide your won SIM, or the built-in one has to be able to roam. One product I looked at comes from Europe. I messaged the very friendly people there, but was either unable to clearly communicate what the question was that I was asking (will it roam across UK networks), or they didn’t know. So I bought a different, more expensive one.

Some ideas will originate with the hardware, such as, say, a thermostat or speakers, and someone will come up with an idea that will link them to the Internet, make them controllable remotely, integrate with other functions, which requires a software interface (that doesn’t have to be an app, it could be voice, for example, or both). Equally you could start with a fitness app, and have an idea for a hardware tracker. In each case, the manager has to extend their skill set beyond their traditional competence to ensure that end-to-end experience.

IOT will also integrate with the latest tech buzzwords – robotics, AI, big data, AR, VR, and alternative interfaces, such as gestures and, particularly, voice. Interface designers will need to be clear about the underlying principles of good usability that apply across different implementations, and then understand how to apply those principles for each case. The product manager must be able to assess and trust that the designer has done their job.

New technologies demand new skills, and the IOT is no different in that respect. It does though need  product managers/owners and their bosses to recognise what that range of skills is.

Common errors in customer surveys

What’s the problem?

I see the same mistakes – as well as some new ones – being made over and again in surveys and questionnaires. Most businesses and other organisations are dependent on surveys to a greater or lesser extent. They use them to find out what customers think of them, or what products they should be developing, or what issues need fixing… etc etc. Yet often those organisations are not getting accurate information. If survey questions are confusing or ambiguous, or constrain answer choices, they will be getting a skewed view of responses. It’s like a political poll asking, for example, ‘which candidate do you like’, rather than ‘who do you intend to vote for’. What do you actually want to know?

My advice is that if you are responsible for a survey of any sort, spend some time getting yourself up to speed with what makes for a good survey, and what some of the pitfalls are. It’s easy when you’re familiar with a topic to ask questions that respondents won’t necessarily understand, and it takes some self-discipline and customer knowledge to avoid the problem.

You can’t always entirely trust the ‘experts’ either. I’ve had many a debate with professional purveyors of surveys about their proposed wording for questions, as I’ve felt that they were

  • ambiguous
  • unclear to my particular customers
  • pointless
  • too similar to other questions
  • not offering adequate response choices
  • etc

You need at least to be able to judge whether the professional advising you really knows their stuff.

It pays to test a survey on a small sample before general release – and that means talking to people, and understanding how they interpret the questions, and whether it’s the interpretation that you intended.

There are many books on how to write questionnaires and surveys. One that I’ve read and can recommend is

The Complete Guide to Writing Questionnaires: How to Get Better Information for Better Decisions

Don’t expect a riveting read, it’s a textbook. But it does cover the ground with good examples.

Now I’ll describe how I decided to approach a survey question at British Airways that was more complicated than it seemed, and then I’ll give some examples from recent surveys that I’ve filled in.

The British Airways question

I was working on the wording for the site survey, and ended up with some convoluted logic. It wasn’t convoluted to the people filling it in (hopefully), as the sequence would make sense to them. It didn’t make a lot of sense though to colleagues and others who reviewed the questions, and I had to defend the structure many times.

When customers filled in the feedback survey on, we wanted to know if they were

  • a member of the Executive Club (the frequent flyer scheme, abbreviated to EC)
  • if so, which tier they were (Blue, Bronze, Silver, Gold)
  • if they weren’t, were they registered with a site login
  • if they weren’t registered at all

We could have gone with this:-

<Are you

  1. An Executive Club (EC) Member
  2. Registered on
  3. Neither
  4. Don’t know>

The problem with this is that some people don’t know if they are EC members. Generally, those who are know they are, as they’ve gone through the process of joining, but otherwise people could say, “How do I tell if I am?”. They might think that just registering on the site, or buying a plane ticket would give them membership. Internally within BA it came as a surprise to some that there could be this confusion.

It would be a little better to have

<Are you

  1. An Executive Club Member
  2. Registered on (but not an Executive Club member)
  3. Neither
  4. Don’t know>

The problem would still remain though that if you are either an Executive Club member, or registered, but weren’t sure which, you would answer ‘don’t know’, and then we wouldn’t have known whether you were registered at all.

It would also potentially confuse some Executive Club members who would think that they are both a member, and also registered.

What we went with was this.

<Do you have a login for>

If the customer said no, skip to next question, if they said yes, then we asked

<Are you an Executive Club Member?>

If they said no, then they were registered, but not EC. If they said yes, we asked what Tier they were.

It’s still not perfect, but it does at least mean that we got better quality results on whether people were registered or not (without having to interpret what ‘registered’ means).

Other surveys

Limiting responses

One of the most frustrating things that I see in a survey is when none of the answers apply. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve told people that they need an ‘other’ option. Sometimes there is a closed set of potential answers – either you bought something on this visit or you didn’t.

I filled in a survey after having attended a Rock weekend at Butlins (it was great). I answered a question saying that the experience could have been better, and then I was presented with this question asking what could be improved.

Butlins survey

The problem is that my reason wasn’t any of these things, yet the only way to progress is to pick one. So I did. If they had an ‘other’ option which allowed me to enter text, I would have let them know that some of the behaviour from other guests who had had too much to drink had been annoying. But they’ll never know.

Butlins also asked this –

Butlins second survey question

The drop-downs were the same for each, and showed this-

Butlins options for what makes a good break

I would expect Butlins to have a good handle on what matters to their customers in general, but for me, Internet access can be a deal breaker for a holiday, and it’s not in the list. My wife always wants to know if there is a hair dryer in the room. These may not be our number one issue, but if you’re going as low as number five, then you risk missing out.

First Great Western (FGW) ask about reason for travel.

FGW reason for travel

I think it’s reasonable to assume that business, commuting and leisure account for the majority of train journeys. But what if you’re travelling to a funeral, or other reasons? It may be a small enough proportion that FGW think it’s not worth making the survey more complex by having an ‘other’, which they are entitled to do. But each time a respondent has to think harder about a question, it’s an additional point at which they are likely to drop out.

Task accomplishment

It’s fairly common on a site survey to ask what the purpose of visiting was (again, it can be problematic to assume you know all the answers), and then to ask whether you were successful.

Maplin and First Great Western both use Foresee to serve their surveys, and they take a different approach to each other.

Maplin success question
First Great Western success question

You can see that Maplin offer a ‘partial success’ option, which FGW don’t. It’s likely that for many sites a significant proportion of customers will be partially successful. With FGW, I might have come to buy a train ticket, and did so, but it wasn’t at the price or the time that I wanted. I count that as a partial success. By only offering the binary choice customers are forced to make a qualitative judgement which way to vote. When that happens, the survey owner loses useful information. That’s especially so if the customer votes for ‘success’, as then you don’t know there’s something that was an issue. You can still ask ‘was there anything else that would have improved your experience today’, but then you have a pile of verbatims, and the issues are lost from the headline reporting of the success question.

Complex questions

I filled in a Which? survey about my car. This was one of the questions, asking how I financed the purchase.

Which? car financing options

As with any web text, survey respondents don’t necessarily read the detail of each question. They will scan, and stop at the first answer they think applies to them. In this list, the choices for ‘Personal Contract Hire’ (the first option) and ‘Personal Contract Purchase’ (further down) are quite similar, and unless you are a wizard on car finance you have to read the detail to understand the difference. I suspect that Which? are going to get more responses to the first option than actually applies. You’ll get people like myself who have ‘Personal Contract Purchase’, who read just enough to decide that the first (and wrong) choice, applies to them.

In such cases, the two options should be next to each other. It doesn’t entirely solve the problem (it would further help if the order was randomised), but there’s more chance that people will spot the alternative, rather than just going with something that looks close enough.

Confusing questions

Time and again I’m filling in a survey and think ‘what do they mean by that?’. Often, these will be technical questions, or ones requiring a subjective judgement but no guidance is offered.

On Google maps I often answer questions about places I’ve visited. It seems that Google has a standard set of questions, some of which do puzzle me.

Google 1

What you and I consider to be ‘trendy’ can vary. Google may be ok with this, but I usually just go for ‘not sure’.

Google 2

I always struggle with this one. Is a more expensive pub ‘upscale’? There are probably venues that clearly are, like the Ritz, and those that clearly aren’t, like McDonalds, but where’s the line?

Google 3

Shouldn’t the question be ‘Is this place popular with travelers?’. Each time I see this I have to stop and think about what it means. Anyway, how can I tell who is a traveler? Does it mean tourists? People just in transit?

Google seem to be experimenting with images as well. Here’s one question I was asked.

Google image choice

I can well imagine that Google could be experimenting with the automation of image choices. Nevertheless, whilst asking me which image is more ‘helpful’ (what does that mean? Should it be ‘representative’?), the picture on the left is of Windsor, rather than Slough. The picture on the right is of some offices just outside Slough. I don’t think either are ‘helpful’, although the one on the right is at least of Slough.

There could be some rhyme and reason to all this. All I’m doing here is pointing out some of the confusion these things cause to me, and readers can decide for themselves whether it’s useful or relevant.

Other issues

I filled in a Which? survey about pet insurance. We have a cat. The survey asks what type of cat it is.

Which? cat

As you can see, the response is selected with a check-box, but unlike radio buttons, check boxes are not mutually exclusive. This doesn’t make sense, as the cat can only be of one type. If you select more than one type, you get an error message.

Which? error

This could easily be avoided by using radio buttons. Whilst most people aren’t going to pick multiples, if you have a cross-breed you might pick two boxes, or you might pick one, and then spot a more accurate description, and go for that. The initial question also does not specify that only one choice can be made.

Viking sell office supplies. They also use Foresee to serve their survey. At the end of the survey this is what you see.

Viking survey completion

It’s good that it says thanks, but where do you think ‘Contact Us’ links to? I’d assumed it would allow me to contact Viking, as I’m answering their survey, but it actually links you to the Foresee site.

Many years ago we discovered that some of our customers were contacting our survey supplier in the mistaken impression they were contacting us. Worse, the supplier was responding directly, rather than passing the messages back. It needs to be clear who the contact is with. Own your own survey.

A couple of positives

I’ll finish off by pointing out a couple of positives things I’ve seen.

Butlins completion

This is a good(ish) sign-off from Butlins, thanking the customer for taking the time. It’s a shame that the message about entry into a prize draw is so small and barely readable. More could be made of it – and a happy picture would add to the experience.

FGW contact question

Customers who respond to a survey may be inclined to help out with further research. FGW ask if customers are willing to do so, and it’s possible to build up quite a database of willing customers that can be segmented by the responses to the survey. The wording could be tightened up and made a bit more visually appealing though.

Finally, from the Which? survey on pet insurance, there’s a question about the age of the cat. It’s good that there is encouragement to answer approximately if you’re not sure. It gives that bit of permission not to sit and agonise about being precise.

Which? cat age

This question reminds me of applying for car insurance years ago. Many insurers asked for the date when your licence was issued. In fact, all they were interested in was whether it was issued more than a certain number of years ago. It would have made my life easier if they had just asked that.