I have a fantasy that goes like this: After publishing a page of content to the website I contribute to daily, users coming to that website read every word and linger, relishing the content.
But the reality is quite different. Users skim and scan the content, reading only enough to answer their questions, gather information or complete a task. They deconstruct my precious on-brand content, rapidly looking for visual cues that will lead them to the content they actually want to read.
The challenge becomes integrating on-brand messaging in a credible, non-marketing way while answering users’ information needs and establishing trust.
Creating Usable Content
I recently picked up some great “how-to” tips at the Web writing sessions led by Janelle Estes at Nielsen Norman Group’s Usability Week 2010 Conference .
There, we discussed the famed “F-pattern” in detail. Based on copious eye-tracking studies led by Jakob Nielsen, we know that people reading online typically scan content in a pattern that roughly resembles the letter “F.”
Similar to the Golden Triangle (a triangular area that represents a user’s typical gaze pattern on a search results page — the horizontal line runs top right to bottom left), the F-pattern concept highlights why it’s so important to strategically craft content that makes it easy for users to consume it online.
Here are some of my favorite tips gleaned from the conference and elsewhere:
Put essential messages first.
Put the most important information — your essential message — in the first paragraph and structure the rest of the page content, visuals and other design elements around this message. Eighty-one percent of online readers will read the first paragraph, but this number declines significantly with successive chronological paragraphs. (Source: Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice, Eyetracking Web Usability.)
Chunk out information and use headings to indicate what content is included in a section. When crafting headings, put information-carrying words first and include keywords for search engine optimization (SEO). Make sure key information is immediately visible and not buried in a paragraph. Limit paragraphs to two or three sentences and use bulleted lists.
Understand your audience.
Know the types of people who come to your website and take into account their information needs. Aim for content that is understandable on an eighth-grade reading level to ensure all audiences can digest the content.
Simplify your writing.
Why say in 10 words what you can say in five? Keep language and sentence structure simple. Use clear, concise, unambiguous language. Use the same words your users do (this also helps with SEO).
Create meaningful links.
Make link text meaningful and descriptive. Text such as “click here” or “more” doesn’t give the user any meaningful information about what content is contained behind the link. Instead, use a short and actionable description of what content the user will access by “clicking here.”
Read more about F-patterns and see heatmap visualizations. (How’s that for a meaningful link?)
Guest blogger Dawn Scarola is content strategist and managing editor for a health care website.