Edit for Scannability

There is a basic assumption that we must make when writing for the web: Web users put off reading web text for as long as they can. Instead, they scan.

Thus, to communicate effectively, we must consciously craft our web text for the benefit of web users who scan.

We create scannable text through:

  • Concise writing
  • Meaningful headlines and subheads
  • Highlighting key information
  • Using lists when appropriate

Concise Writing

I can think of many websites whose text was first in print. This is not a bad thing, but it is a bad thing if that text isn't edited before it goes online.

Here are guidelines for editing text for the web.

  • Web text should be half the word count of what it was on paper.
  • Cut the marketing lingo. It rarely helps a web user and just gets in the way of the information they want.
  • Stay focused. Move supplemental information to another web page, or cut it altogether.

Meaningful Headlines and Subheads

When users scan a page, their eyes jump to heads and subheads – their size and weight provide structure to a page and are a great opportunity to deliver your message.

Here are some tips for creating headers on your page.

  • Load your headers. If your web user reads only your headers, will they leave with valuable information?
  • Headers announce new topics. Using headers as transition signals from one idea to a new, related idea often helps with reading comprehension.
  • Headers help users make value judgements about the text. As users scan pages, they are continuously making judgements on whether it is worth their time to actually read text. Headers are key in informing these judgements.

Highlighting Key Information

There are many ways to highlight information on web pages, but only two really effective ones: boldface and links.

  • Use bold type to highlight key information.
    • Italics are unreliable because of poor screen resolution.
    • ALL CAPS are more difficult to read because we read word shapes instead of letters.
    • Using a variety of colors to highlight text distracts a user as they try to decode your color code.
  • Links are naturally highlighted as they are usually blue and underlined.
  • So, load links with meaningful information.
    • For example, instead of having a link written as Click here for more info, have it written Legislature approves budget hike for higher education. Web users are used to seeing links; you don't need to tell them to "Click here" for anything.
    • It takes work to write each link in a useful, meaningful way, but it is worth it.

Using Lists When Appropriate

While I was at MSU, I did an informal study with two web documents that had the same information. The first document was concise, but in paragraphs like you would find in a print document. The second used about the same text, but used bulletted lists to show serialized information. Nearly all web users responded that they liked "reading" the second document more, and many of them actually felt that it had more information.

The point is, lists actually deliver information more effectively for your users.

  • Lists allow for easy skimming.
  • They suggest that the information is similar.
  • Each list item is unique.

By putting serial information into lists, you are helping your users process the information.

By choosing instead to leave that information in paragraph form, you make it more difficult for your users to get your message.