Surfing web sites is very different from reading a magazine, book, or letters.
The first law of web dynamics states that users are racing through sites.
Users very rarely visit a web site in a leisurely, casual, slowpoking, linear navigating manner. Web visitors are typically in a time crunch, they have other, better things to do than play guessing games with a web site, trying to figure out what's relevant and what's not.
Users are aggressively seeking relevant information, entertainment, or functions that enable them to accomplish a goal. Text that is designed or formatted specifically for web sites is called "web scan text".
Web sites can enhance usability, increase traffic, by conforming to the best practices guideline of converting print read text to web scan text.
Print Read text means text that is written, formatted, and designed for reading in print medium vehicles, such as brochures, books, letters, magazine articles, print ads, etc.
Web Scan text means text that is written, formatted, and designed for scanning on web sites as they appear on computer monitor screens.
PRINCIPLE #1: Text in web sites is difficult to read due to peculiar properties of pixels and computer monitors, as differentiated from the traditional ink on paper of print vehicles.
People are also used to holding print vehicles at various angles and having the ability to vary their positions (sit, slouch, lean, lie down) while reading lengthy material, while computer monitor screens are generally at a fixed position and necessitate users to assume a fixed posture. This inflexible posture can result in neck aches.
PRINCIPLE #2: People exhibit impatience when surfing the Web or researching web sites.
Focused attention to text is sporadic and of short duration. Text is usually not read in a leisurely, scholarly manner. People tend to zoom through both images and words, to find what is of importance to their immediate concerns. They'll slow down for a while. But once their needs are met or their interest subsides, off they go again. Clicking away.
Users expect to connect to the Internet quickly, arrive at web sites quickly, have web sites download quickly, have links connect quickly, have everything happen quickly and, if possible, effortlessly. Delays and extra effort are greeted with annoyance and even downright irritability, especially when a user has been online for a long period of time in a single session. We must strive to accommodate these human behavior and attitude factors.
PRINCIPLE #3: Print Read text must be converted to Web Scan text for use in a web site. If your web site text could easily transfer to a print vehicle, or was directly imported from print documents, it's not in the correct style or format for web content.
Users do not visit web sites to engage in long-term reading, even when the topics are of interest. In most cases, users skim rapidly through web text to gather pertinent facts, and print out lengthy material to read in print format later.
Jakob Nielsen's webwriting study verifies this.
See also the book, Designing Usable Electronic Text by Andrew Dillon, Taylor & Francis Publisher, 1994.
TEXT CONVERSION PROCESS
It's not difficult to convert Print Read text to Web Scan text, though it requires some concentrated, strategic thinking about words, phrases, and idea presentation. Try to follow these guidelines:
#1. Eliminate unnecessary articles (the, a, an), prepositions (by way of, in terms of, at, through, regarding, in, for) and other words that contain little information or slow down reading.
#2. Write the information any way you want. Then pretend you have to pay $100 out of your own pocket for each word you use. Start cutting out every word you possibly can, while retaining the full meaning. Say it “fast,” as though you had ten minutes to live. No lengthy, preparatory introductions. Cut to the chase.
#3. Instead of listing three or more items in long sentence strings, separated by commas, list them as bullets (when order is not crucial) or numbered items (when sequential order, or recall of items, is critical). Bullets are generally asterisks or round dots.
#4. Use symmetry in bulleted or numbered lists. When possible, begin each item with an beneficial action word, or a command.
* Fixes your...
* Polishes the...
* Preserves all...
* Beautifies like...
* Saves time by...
1. Write the...
2. Show others your...
3. Ponder comments from...
4. Revise according to...
5. Double check all...
#5. Make the listed items fit grammatically and stylistically with the sentence fragment leading to the list. Take the sentence string and convert it to list form.
When writing web scan text:
* write conclusion first
* incorporate user language, not insider terms
* keep it short
* use reserved, objective descriptions
* avoid high-powered sales hype
* employ bulleted or numbered lists.
[Notice, I didn't say “conclusion comes first,” “user language is best,” “experts suggest short sentences and paragraphs,” or “lists should use bullets or numbers.” Sentences begin with command word. Lead fragment and list items are consistent in style.]
#6. Use bold or italics to emphasize key words and phrases. Never use underlining, since this embellishment is strictly reserved, by web convention, for hypertext links. Be careful with bold words and colored type, since this may be interpreted as a link.
#7. Use copy chunking to break material into linkable segments, then use hypertext links to enable users to pursue topics more deeply. Links can be outbound or to internal site pages.
#8. Use heads and subheads to segment information into manageable chunks and give users a quick sense of idea flow and segment content. Extract the essence of each info segment.
#9. Keep sentences and paragraphs as short as possible. One idea per paragraph. For some reason, people will read short sentences and paragraphs nearly forever, as long as it's interesting. But they tire and bail out of long, dense blocks of text in a few minutes, no matter how interesting it is.
#10. Keep web pages short. Users generally don't like to scroll. Inexperienced users may not even know something could be “below the fold,” thus will not scroll, so all that information will not be viewed by them, will remain invisible.
#11. Present information in the “inverted pyramid” style of newspaper articles: conclusion/call to action first, proof and background details next, supplementary material last.
#12. Explain what, though you understand it, may not be obvious to users. Anticipate their questions, objections, and concerns.
#13. Don't slavishly follow these or any other guidelines. Apply what makes sense for your specific web site. Vary the text styles. Perhaps even add some short Print Read text here and there.
Now let's apply some of this Conversion Process to a real life situation, an actual, existing web site
From the www.wdboyce.org web site, we find the following text in the Programs > Camping > Winter Camping > First Aid Building section (the actual URL is too long and complicated to render here, which is another problem we need to fix):
(PRINT READ TEXT)
First Aid Building
The First Aid Building is equipped to sleep 14 individuals and has separate rooms available for adult male and adult female leaders. The building is equipped with a propane heater, electric stove, refrigerator, tables, chairs, and mattresses for sleeping. There are portable toilets and picnic tables outside the building for troop use. During the winter months, water must be carried in by the participants.
COST: $85 per weekend for W. D. Boyce Council units; $100 per weekend for Out-of-Council units.
(WEB SCAN TEXT)
First Aid Building
*separate adult male leaders rooms
*separate adult female leaders rooms
*3 tables, each with 4 chairs
*portable outside toilets
*3 picnic tables
NOVEMBER to MARCH (only)--you must carry your own water supplies into building from our campground reservoir. (Water pipes are turned off to prevent freezing.)
W. D. Boyce Council units: $85 per weekend
Out-of-Council units: $100 per weekend
The Print Read text was converted with no loss of vital details. A list makes it easy to compare First Aid with other camp buildings. It also is easier to scan quickly.
Please remember...web sites are NOT magazines or books. Prolonged screen reading is a pain to users, who are usually in a big hurry, distracted, and impatiently skimming and scanning.
Do yourself, and users, a big favor.
Format your online text to make it easier for users to skim, scan, compare, and recall. Break up your paragraphs, even in blog site comment postings. Short paragraphs are so much easier, and more fun, to scan quickly and read.