Web Writing Usability Guidelines from an Amateur

User-friendly writing is always a good thing

This article contains the primary ideas I follow when I try to write material that is helpful and easy for people to read.  User-friendly writing helps readers get maximum clarity and value with minimum effort.  While the following tenets of writing for web usability are conceived of for intranet content, they apply just as much to writing emails to groups, blog posts, pages for web sites, even comments on blogs, and in any other arena where I am writing content aimed at conveying clear messages and helping readers complete tasks.

Core concepts: Writing for your readers

  • Readers are busy:  I assume that readers are busy and live waist-deep in a rushing river of information.  My job is to provide the information they need and expect in the quickest, clearest possible way so they can move on to their other tasks and deal with the next byte of information.
  • Easy scanning:  I assume readers prefer to scan a page rather than read the whole thing, if possible (web user research confirms this).  Write and format to facilitate scanning, which can result in users getting the info they need really fast.
  • Language of the user:  I try to use terms and phrases that readers inherently understand.  Avoid technical or sector-specific terms unless they match the background of the reading audience.  Every unknown word is a barrier to clarity, understanding, and completion of the task at hand.
  • Simple & straight-forward:  Get to the point and say it clearly.  Avoid long, winding sentences and vague terms.
  • Call to action at the top:  I don’t expect a reader to read an entire page of text and discover a request for action in the very last sentence.  State a clear request for action at the very top of the page so the reader knows exactly what this is all about.
  • Start with synthesis:  Imagine a user reads only the first two sentences of your page.  Will she know what it’s about?  Do your readers a favor and give a clear one- or two-sentence synthesis.  If your writing and the synthesis are good, the user may just read the whole page.
  • Brevity is the soul of… respect for readers:  It’s easier for me to write something long and winding than short and clear.  But this is about my readers, not about me.  I try to review what I’ve written and find ways to make it shorter and clearer out of respect for my readers’ time.

Specific formatting tactics for user-friendly web writing

  • Descriptive titles:  A reader should get an accurate sense of the page’s contents from the title.  I want to lure readers into clicking a page link or reading the page, but I don’t want to deceive them or have them waste their time going to pages that don’t have the information they want.  I find it challenging to balance fascinating & enticing language with clear, straightforward terms.  Occasionally humor trumps clarity, but even there, a funny title may convey a lot of information by presenting a common concept or mental frame that readers resonate with.  I try to avoid falling into the trap of writing clever, self-satisfying titles that may not be helpful to readers.
  • Predictive headings:  Before each section or major paragraph of the page, I like to write a big bold heading that describes the primary messages or information below.  These “predictive” headings tell readers what to expect and help them decide whether the following content will be worth their time.  They also help me communicate with readers who will only scan the page.
  • Bullets:  Bullets are easy for readers to scan and force me to write short, pithy sentences or sentence fragments.  A reader can much more easily get a sense of the meaning of bulletted lines than a long paragraph with several different points.
  • Bold & italics for emphasis:  In order to emphasize certain ideas or phrases, focus on using bold and italicized text.  But emphasizing long text strings.  Also, make sure the bold or italicized text is highly clear and informative and conveys a clear concept.
  • No underlining, except on links:  On web pages and anything web-related, users expect underlined text to be hyperlinks.  Avoid underlining text for emphasis so as not to confuse or distract readers.
  • Insert links in short, relevant text:  The destination of a hyperlink should be clear to readers.  The linked text should either be a clear action, such as “read the full article” or “submit a help form” or should link to a clearly defined piece of content.  Avoid inserting links in long text strings.  This can dilute the clarity of the link destination and distracts readers from surrounding text.
  • Minimize use of words in all capital letters:  Readers cannot scan words written in all capital letters as well as they scan normal text.  And once you write one page title or heading in all capital letters, it’s hard to justify not writing the next one in all capitals, and the next, and the next.  Additionally, it distracts from the words, such as acronyms, that should appear in all capital letters.

Plain text modifications: For when you can’t format text with bold, etc.

Sometimes a content field allows only plain text or requires inputting HTML code to format text.  In these cases, I try to use the following modified formatting tricks to present user-friendly writing.

  • Capitals instead of headings & bold:  Use all-capital headings instead of bold, large-text headings.  All-caps headings break up content into smaller chunks and stick out from the rest of the text for easy scanning.
  • Dashes instead of indented bullets:  Dashes (-), plus signs (+), greater-than signs (>) and other symbols can stand in for indented bullets.
  • Extra spacing:  Without bold, headings, and indents to break up text and provide emphasis, extra spacing between paragraphs, headings and lines of text can make scanning and reading easier and faster.

The web usability experts I follow:

Jakob Nielsen (Nielsen Norman Group)
Gerry McGovern (Customer Care Words)
James Robertson (Step Two Designs)