October 2, 2016

Writing for the web

In the previous article ‘User experience design: an overview’ we discussed the importance of supporting task associated interactions. Users visit a website not to read every word on the page, but rather, to find something specific and of relevance to them. There are some key guidelines for writing copy for the web which experts in the field have found to be most effective for usability.

Writing web content is quite different from writing for print. In print, storytelling can spice up the content, entertain and persuade a reader that’s in a relaxed setting with more time to take it in. In the web arena, the content must be brief because users are in task mode, on a specific mission and time poor.

It makes sense then that web users prefer writing that is succinct and easy to scan. They don’t respond well to marketing promotional style writing as this is just a level of frill that separates them from the point. By providing text that is succinct, easily scannable and compact, the user’s cognitive load is reduced allowing for more efficient processing of the information.

Here’s a few basic tips to help with writing for the web:

1) Paragraphs should contain no more than 3-5 sentences. It’s much easier to consume a small paragraph of information than a large block of text.

2) Start sentences with the most relevant words, don’t leave them until the end of the sentence. Users scan down the left side of the paragraph, so the words at the end of the sentence are often missed.

User experience experts applied these principles to an existing site and reported a 124% increase in usability. This was measured in task time (80% better), task errors (809%), memory (100%), and subjective satisfaction (37%). The full report can be viewed here.

3) Use hyperlinks as navigational tools. Think of links within the copy as sign posts. They stand out within the copy and if described well, can provide information about what is on the linked page and gives users an idea of where they might want to go next.

These 3 tips are just the beginning of writing for the web but hopefully provides a useful overview for those starting out. For further reading try ‘Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works’, 2nd edition, by Janice (Ginny) Redish.

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