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WWW: Writing for the Wired World. September 25, 2002 Darlene Fichter, President Northern Lights Internet Solutions Ltd . www.lights.com. Outline . Reading & Writing Research Do’s and Don’ts Format, typography, style, ... Document Conversion & Standards. Outline. Writing for:”

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www writing for the wired world

WWW: Writing for the Wired World

September 25, 2002

Darlene Fichter, President

Northern Lights Internet Solutions Ltd.


  • Reading & Writing
  • Research
    • Do’s and Don’ts
    • Format, typography, style, ...
  • Document Conversion & Standards
  • Writing for:”
    • Search Engines
    • Error Messages
  • Usability Testing
    • Quick and easy techniques
  • Strategies to encourage good writing
  • Focus on IT – the technology
  • Often key Intranet developers do not have writing experience
    • Programmer, Information architect, Content experts, Intranet manager, Designers
  • As a result:
    • Writing ignored
    • Time spent on top level pages only
    • Time spent on menus/graphics
    • Site vs. Page
the reality
The Reality
  • Micro-content is as important as the navigation, side menus, design
focus of the presentation research
Focus of the Presentation: Research
  • Usability studies
    • Watch and observe 1000’s of users using the web and intranet
reading writing
Reading & Writing
  • Goal is to communicate
    • Strategy
    • Key messages
    • Your audience

There is nothing more important than the strategy phase. If you don’t spend time on it, it’s like being on a dark road without your headlights on.

Drue Miller, Webmistress Vivid Studios

intranet audience
Intranet Audience
  • Focused on getting the job done
  • Diverse
    • Experience
    • Usage patterns
    • Nature of their work – Engineers, Financial analysts, Marketers
novice occasional users
Novice / Occasional Users*
  • Intimidated by complex menus
  • Like unambiguous structure
    • Apples or Oranges
  • Easy access to overviews that illustrate how information is arranged, maps, FAQs
  • Glossary of technical terms, acronyms, abbreviations
  • Visual layouts & graphics that trigger their memory

* Adapted from Patrick Lynch Sarah Horton, Web Style Guide. Yale University Press, 1999.

expert frequent users
Expert/Frequent Users*
  • Depend on you for speed and accuracy
  • Impatient with low-density graphics that offer only a few choices
  • Prefer stripped down fast loading text menus
  • Specific goals
  • Appreciate detailed text menus, site structure outlines, comprehensive site indexes, well designed search engines
  • Accelerators – ways to bypass the fluff

* Adapted from Patrick Lynch Sarah Horton, Web Style Guide. Yale University Press, 1999.

international users
International Users
  • Don’t abbreviate dates 3/4/99 March 4 or April 3?
  • Avoid idiosyncratic professional jargon or obscure technical terms on your intro pages
  • Avoid situational metaphors
top 10 things employees need to know
Contact information

Internal news about the company

Press coverage about the company

Press coverage about a topic

Company policies

Information about competitors


Contact information for someone outside the company

Latest analyst report

Background on unfamiliar company

Top 10 Things Employees Need to Know*

*Alison Head. On-the-Job Research: How Usable Are Corporate Intranets?

how users read on screens
How Users Read on Screens
  • How do people read on the screen?
    • Top to bottom
    • Left to right
    • Focus first on

the micro-content

    • Scroll to the bottom
    • Only after failing

- side menu

- top menu

  • 25% slower on the screen
research shows don t read
Research shows: DON’T READ
  • People who are looking for information don't read, they scan.
  • If they have to read instructions or help page, most people will not.
  • Readers understand more when reading less.
  • Create page titles, headings and subheadings
  • Be consistent in how you design the headings
    • Use font and/or color to offset headings
headings subheadings
Headings & Subheadings
  • Rule of Thumb
    • Emphasis – rule of thumb one at a time. Bold or size.
    • Eyes are tuned to small differences.
    • No need to SHOUT at users.
punch up the power of headlines
Punch Up the Power of Headlines
  • Make every heading word meaningful
  • Make sure the 1st headline or title on page summarizes the content
  • Separate sections with 2nd level headings
  • 3 levels on one page is about all the reader can grasp
use lists
Use Lists
  • Use lists or tables
  • Use bullets when sequence doesn’t matter and use numbers when it does
  • Lists speed up scanning but slow down reading
  • Use lists when you have key concepts, not full sentences
which is easiest to read research says
Which is easiest to read? Research says…








  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Biotechnology
  • Chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Physics
  • Zoology

Anatomy Biology Biotechnology Chemistry Microbiology Physics Zoology

  • Can help organize content for easier viewing
table example 1
Table: Example 1


20th Century


Van Gogh




table example 2
Table: Example 2

Art Format

20th Century Books

Modernism Journals

Impressionism Maps

Van Gogh

  • Organize your content to be read in columns, not as rows
  • Categorical not alphabetical
  • Do not use table borders to delineate the content – use space and background color
users also scan for links
Users Also Scan for Links
  • Make the links in your text meaningful
  • Make visited and unvisited links contrast with the base font color
example of scanning
Example of Scanning

Employee Phone Number Search

  • Search by last name
  • Browse employees by office location
  • List all staff, click here
hypertext classic mistakes
Hypertext: Classic Mistakes
  • Overused – everything is a link.
  • Used for key concepts instead of lists or headings based on the belief.
  • Often the link is referenced itself interrupting the reader’s thoughts. To start the tour, click here.
use links wisely
Use Links Wisely
  • Hypertext is powerful but can also be distracting
  • Links can help reduce clutter by moving information to separate Web pages
  • But when concentrating on content, people often ignore embedded links
create links that don t need to be followed
Create Links That Don’t Need To Be Followed
  • Use long descriptive links, captions, or headings so users can eliminate choices
  • UIE’s research shows that links with 4 to 9 words are more effective
reading slower implications for style
Reading Slower: Implications for Style
  • Be succinct
  • Pyramid style (newspaper)
  • Scanning – lists, lists and more lists
  • Looks a lot like PowerPoint
be succinct
Be Succinct
  • Simplify for understanding
  • Use fewer words, smaller words, and simpler words
  • Place words into simple sentence structures
  • Examples:



rule of thumb 50
Rule of Thumb: 50%
  • ½ the word count of conventional writing
invert the pyramid
Invert the Pyramid
  • Newspaper style writing
  • State your conclusion first
  • Summarize most important items first
  • Then get to the details
one idea per paragraph
One Idea Per Paragraph
  • Stanford/Poynter study showed that many web visitors will read only the first or second sentences of paragraph
  • Use a strong lead sentence that summarizes content
    • Aka blogs
fragments or sentences
Fragments or Sentences
  • Some debate
  • Poynter seems to imply sentences
  • Imperative style sentences starting with a verb can be very effective
harness verbs
Harness Verbs
  • Verbs get your visitors energized
  • Using active verbs also helps improve your credibility
  • Examples:
    • Download Marketing XYZ presentation.
    • Register for XYZ workshop.
reading trust
Reading & Trust
  • Users are judgmental and strongly adverse to marketese, or “happy talk”
  • For your Intranet to be credible, you must be:
    • Current
    • Accurate
    • Objective
things to avoid
Things to Avoid
  • “Marketese”
    • Anything that sounds like “advertising” is a complete turn off … the best, the biggest …
  • Avoid superlatives and vague claims
  • Don't boast, exaggerate or self-congratulate
  • Avoid advertising talk such as "greatest thing since..." and "state-of-the-art..."
  • Present facts clearly and users will decide for themselves what is useful

Adapted from: http://www.eldis.org/tales/writing/write.htm

objective boring
Objective ≠ Boring
  • Rule of Thumb
    • Be fresh and engaging
    • Write as if you are talking to an “individual”
be concrete
Be Concrete
  • Use concrete words: nouns and verbs
  • Avoid adjectives and adverbs
  • Make sure your facts are correct and timely. Are your statistics from this year, this quarter?
  • Make sure your links work! If they don’t, it’s sure to annoy users.
  • Date your content.
reading scanning typography
Reading, Scanning & Typography
  • Our eyes look for patterns
  • Control the words, control the layout and the look
  • Make it very easy to see repeating patterns




  • Consider typography carefully when the page content is mainly text. The use of type will define the page.
    • Use margins to separate areas

* This section is based Patrick Lynch Sarah Horton, Web Style Guide. Yale University Press, 1999 * SURL Laboratory studies, http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl


Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information.

Edward Tufte, 1997 interview

web justified text
Web & Justified Text
  • Hard to justify to text
  • Left justified the most legible option


Right Justified

Left Justified

headlines justification
Headlines & Justification
  • Left aligned is best
  • Right aligned is okay
  • Centered works well when you can justify text (not recommended on the web) and pairs poorly with a jagged left edge
line length
Line Length
  • Many web pages have lines that are too long to read quickly
  • The eye’s acute focus is only about 3 inches wide
  • Key Consideration:
    • Accessibility
    • Controlling the length
  • On the web usually 50 to 70 characters
text cells
Text Cells
  • Create a table with a 365 pixel wide cell
  • With a 12 point Times New Roman font, you’ll have about fifty characters and 9 to 10 words per line

* Adapted from Patrick Lynch Sarah Horton, Web Style Guide. Yale University Press, 1999.

capital lower case letters
Capital & Lower Case Letters
  • UPPERCASE is harder to read
  • We read by recognizing the overall shape of words, rather than parsing letter by letter
best practices
Best Practices
  • Title case or downstyle typing where you capitalize only the first word
  • You need to consider:
    • Legibility on the screen
    • How well it prints if the page or document is lengthy
    • Visitor may override your font choices
  • Arial or Times New Roman fonts at 12 pt are the most legible*

*SURL Laboratory usability studies. http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl

screen printing
Screen & Printing
  • Times New Roman is a good choice for legibility on the screen
  • It is compact and is also legible on paper
  • Verdana & Georgia look great on the screen but look large when printed
conventional choices
Conventional Choices
  • Serif face such as Times New Roman for body text and sans serif such as Arial or Verdana for headlines
classic mistakes
Classic Mistakes
  • Fonts are too small
    • Over 40 with bifocals!
  • Failure to recognize that user needs to control fonts
classic mistakes1
Classic Mistakes
  • Too many fonts

Page looks like a clown’s pants.

bold italics color underline
Bold, Italics, Color & Underline
  • Bold is effective and works well for section headings.
  • Italics is harder to read. It does stand out. Use for short blocks of text only.
  • Underlined text is out. Looks like a hyperlink.
colored text
Colored Text
  • In blocks of text, colored words looks like hyperlinks. Avoid this use.

Colored Text in Headings

  • Using colored text in headings can be effective
what about longer documents
What about longer documents?
  • To convert or not convert
    • How will it be used?
      • Chunks or all at once
      • Printing
    • How will your search engine index it?
    • How is it produced?
      • All at once, revised in bits
    • Nature of the content
      • Prescription drug tables
what about save as
What about “Save As”?
  • Standards
    • XHTML
    • Bloated code
    • Short term
what if users need to read a long document
What if users need to read a long document?
  • Provide a good headline and summary
  • Consider rewriting it (50%)
  • Provide an outline
  • Provide navigation within the document to anywhere else in the document
  • Make it easy to print any section or the whole document
long documents as html
Long Documents as HTML
  • Chunk it
  • Present a “model” that the users grasp
  • Offer Internal navigation
    • Next, Previous
    • Back to section
    • Back to T of C
to scroll or not to scroll
To Scroll or Not to Scroll?
  • Early days, scrolling caused fatal errors
  • Scrolling works now provided that the page looks like it continues
above the fold
Above The Fold
  • Hierarchy of Importance
    • Make sure the most important items are above the fold
  • To enhance navigation, link density should be the greatest above the fold
language metaphors puns and fun
Language, Metaphors, Puns and Fun
  • Use the language of your users
  • Ambiguity is often a problem
  • Provide context
classic mistakes2
Classic Mistakes
  • Web sites are full of jargon
  • Organized by internal departments and use internal names
  • Works fine for those that are within the unit
  • Main Intranet site should try to use general terms or use “jargon” followed by an explanation
puns fun
Puns & Fun
  • Humor is tricky. Puns and metaphors often don’t work quite like you expect. If you have an international audience they often don’t translate well.
other important writing tasks
Other Important Writing Tasks
  • Error Messages
  • Search Engines
error messages
Error Messages
  • Who writes the error messages?
  • Predict points of failure and suggest solutions:
    • 404 Not Found
    • No search results
  • Should stand out from other text
    • Should be comprehensible!
search engines
Search Engines
  • Crucial audience, often overlooked, is search engines
  • Find out how your search engine ranks:
    • <title>, <h1>, metatags, keyword frequency, date
    • Write to satisfy the engine
    • Increase “findability” – consider how users will search for this page
make your web pages free standing
Make Your Web Pages Free Standing
  • Many users will arrive at a page from a search result list
  • The page may be the 22 page in the long document or the home page
  • The user needs to know – where they are, what’s up and what’s below

How good is it?

what really works
What really works?

Have you ever been at a web development meeting where people debated the size of an image or the color of link or a label for hours?

cookie test
“Cookie” Test
  • Preference or “cookie” testing
    • My Account
    • Your Account Status
    • Chequing Account
    • Login
paper mockups
Paper Mockups
  • Take out pages and ask where would you click to do X, Y and Z?
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
  • Thinking of changing your site
  • See a good idea
  • Test their page/site with task based testing
task based testing
Task Based Testing
  • Real users doing typical tasks
  • Observers
  • Analysis
10 strategies to encourage good writing
10 Strategies to Encourage Good Writing
  • Have an editorial style guide for acronyms, names, etc.
  • Mandate site wide look & feel using CSS
  • Lead by example
  • Recognize good writing
  • Encourage key content providers to be observers in usability testing
Educate & market
    • Tips, newsletters
  • Reward with “search engine” placement those that “play nice”
  • Set up quality checklists
  • Train new authors
  • Educate manager’s that one of the “W”s in WWW is writing!
secret to good wired writing
Secret to Good Wired Writing
  • Observe, test, and learn
  • Test some more
  • Write often and write a lot
thank you
Thank you!
  • Questions?
  • Darlene Fichter

Northern Lights Internet Solutions Ltd.

  • Web Sites Usability & Writing
    • http://www.lights.com/talks/