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).
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.
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.
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:-
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:-
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:-
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.
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.
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:-
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’.
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.
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