Writing for Your Reader

You must be in touch with the interests, culture, needs, and limitations of your users in order to write for them. Information must be filtered and translated into a form your target reader can digest. For example, doctors need to understand the physiological and psychological effects that cigarette smoking has on their patients so that they can treat them. But they must also be able to explain the effects of smoking to their patients in lay terms. So must a medical-advice site intended for patients. Whatever your subject matter, if you're writing for a lay audience, avoid technical or industry jargon.

On the other hand, don't make the mistake of talking down to your audience. For example, in our study of teenagers, they often complained that adults are out of touch and don't understand their situations. They resented sites that came across as judgmental and particularly detested insincerity. When adults try to be "cool" or talk down to them, young people can detect it in a heartbeat. In our tests, we found that teens appreciated anecdotes that they could relate to. Supporting text with relevant illustrations or photographs was also key in facilitating learning and retaining their interest. Their enthusiasm quickly plummeted, however, when confronted with large blocks of text and ineffective examples.

Tip: Know Your Audience

Who is your intended audienceIT professionals, teenagers, parents of school-age kids? Identifying your target audience helps you effectively communicate ideas and keeps you focused on the right subject and tone. Your readers want content that addresses their concerns and speaks to them at their level, in a voice they can relate to.

TheInsite.org had a section on how to resolve conflicts with siblings. While this topic initially piqued a lot of interest in a test with teenage users, many participants were skeptical of the advice given on the site because the language sounded too clinical. It was written in an adult tone that teens couldn't relate to. Several users chuckled at the phrase, "Use 'I feel' statements." They responded better to terms such as "cool off" and "listen." Users also expected to get concrete examples, which this site lacked.

"I'm thinking that this is a bunch of lies. Nobody does this. Make it more realistic and keep it real."

"This Web site was not satisfying because it didn't show examples of how to get along with each other."


Teenage students avoid governmental sites, assuming they won't be able to relate to the content. Users suggested that their interest would be bolstered if sites used simpler language and had topics with which they could identify.

"We like to be treated equal to adults. Just use less complicated language. Teens process information differently from adults. Instead of using complicated words, take it slow. Most people go to a Web site to look up something. They want to understand it. Adults might understand topics differently and have different views. They have more experience and think differently."


Use Simple Language

Out of respect for your users' time and reading skills, keep your writing simple and concise. Using sophisticated words won't make you appear smarter or earn points with your users. Most people prefer a conversational tone to a formal tone because it's more personal and direct. Match your writing to their reading level to ensure maximum readability.

Using sophisticated words won't make you appear smarter or earn points with your users. Most people prefer a conversational tone.

Don't overwrite. Superfluous verbiage makes people work unnecessarily hard to find the information they need, and convoluted language and fancy words alienate users; choose short words over long ones. For example, rather than use the term "carcinogenic," you might choose a simpler yet descriptive phrase such as "causes cancer."

Three Guidelines for Better Web Writing

  • Skip the jargon. The terminology your organizational or industry uses is not usually part of your customer's vernacular. Simple terms might not seem artful or original, but they're understandable.

  • Avoid acronyms. Government Web sites are especially notorious for sprinkling acronyms throughout their pages, assuming that audiences know what they mean.

  • Bar sarcasm, subtle word play, and clichés such as "happy as a clam" or "caught with your pants down," which don't translate well on the Web and distract readers. Your audience is coming to your site for direct content, not for cleverness. Remember that the Web is truly a worldwide medium, and idioms don't easily cross borders.

(Facing page, top) This site attempts to insert humor into its product description. Unfortunately, some people didn't get the joke. The reference about "taco sauce" being a road-trip essential wasn't considered humorous.

"It says the removable flip-up rear seats let you configure the Element to fit most road-trip essentials, including your favorite taco sauceI don't get that."


(Facing page, bottom) Our test users on the Social Security Administration Web site had difficulty finding answers to basic questions such as retirement age and benefit amounts. Even when staring at the page that contained the answers, people felt helpless because they couldn't interpret esoteric terms such as "Total Reduction" and "Total % Reduction." This is an example of using internal jargon instead of straightforward language to explain concepts.

"I thought it was over my head. They didn't talk in layman's terms. This is like speaking Greek to the average person."


This is an example of how using the wrong words can cause people to misinterpret the information. The tab labeled "Practice Information" is meant to lead visitors to information about the organization. People in the medical field commonly use the word "practice" in this way, but average people don't expect to find corporate information under "practice." They were looking for a more widely accepted term such as "About Us."


Meeting Low Literacy Needs

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), a collaborative study by seven governments and three intergovernmental organizations, discovered that even in industrialized countries, a large percentage of adults have low literacy or poor reading comprehension.

In Sweden, where overall literacy is the highest, 28 percent of the participants scored in the lower literacy rangesat about an eighth-grade reading level or below. A 2003 study conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 43 percent of Americans aged 16 and older fall in the same category.

While most users prefer clear, simple language, site visitors with poor reading skills need it. Though people with low literacy tend to use the Web less, they still need and deserve accessible sites. In the United States and the United Kingdom, where literacy levels lag behind those of other developed nations, the number of Web users with low literacy may be as high as 30 percent. As Web usage continues to grow, this proportion will rise.

Make low-literacy needs a priority, especially if your site targets a broad general audience. We advise writing text that's aimed at the sixth-grade reading level, especially on high-exposure pages such as the homepage, category pages, and product pages. Pages deeper inside the site can be written at an eighth-grade reading level. Have a good Web content editor review the text for simplicity or use one of the many readability tools available. If the reading level is too high, reduce it by using simpler words with fewer syllables, and shorter sentences and paragraphs.

Tone Down Marketing Hype

Don't go for the hard sell. People prefer factual language and are turned off by anything that sounds overly promotional or exaggerated. Credibility is important on the Web, and organizations need to work hard to earn and keep it. Highly self-congratulatory statements come across as self-serving, and people are repelled by them. Extraordinary claims cause people to pause, evaluate their accuracy, and try to separate the facts from hype. Give people the facts and let them come to their own conclusions. Good content sells itself.

Don't go for the hard sell. Give people the facts and let them come to their own conclusions. Good content sells itself.

If you've never heard of this company, its homepage wouldn't help you understand what it is that it actually does. "High performance. Delivered" is a tagline that might describe virtually any business. Similarly, the highlighted quote in the center of the page is another example of empty marketing blather, and it doesn't describe what services or products the organization provides either. Toning down the marketing spin and using more descriptive phrases would improve usability and enhance credibility.


Accenture's description of its services isn't much better. The marketing lingo dilutes the message and doesn't clearly describe the services. Again, this text could apply a myriad of businesses.


Tip: When and Where to Toot Your Horn

Sometimes a little self-congratulation is appropriate, such as when you're highlighting noteworthy accomplishments. The goal is to appear knowledgeable without coming on too strong. If you have received noteworthy awards, go ahead and mention a few that will be meaningful to your users, especially if your organization is relatively unknown. However, don't pad your list with outdated or unrelated accomplishments such as design awards if you're not a design agency.

Take care to keep advertising out of the corporate areas of your site and other sections where people expect straight talk, such as "About Us" and "Investor Relations" sections. People who access these areas are specifically looking for company facts. Strong marketing language detracts from the facts, casting doubt on the credibility of the organization.

Writing Samples: Before and After

Notice how each of these samples can be rewritten to be more concise and understandable. The revised passage on volcanoes is more suitable for a general audience including children and teens.

From www.health.gov:

Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups while choosing foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.

Our shorter, simpler version:

Eat a variety of foods from each of the basic food groups. Limit saturated and trans fats, added sugars, salt, and alcohol in your diet.

Question: How do volcanoes form?

From www.space.com:

Volcanoes form when chambers of magma, or hot molten rock, boil to the surface. These magma chambers often remain sealed for hundreds of years between eruptions, until the pressure builds sufficiently to break through a vent, which is a crack or weak spot in the rock above.

Simpler version from www.encarta.msn.com:

Volcanoes form when the planet needs to let heat escape from its interior. Rocks that melt deep beneath the planet's surface become liquid magma. The magma rises from Earth's interior to spew forth from a volcano at the Earth's surface.

This article is good if you're looking for a high-level summary of treatment options for stroke patients. The content is admirably clear, with medical concepts described in common language. Even so, it is written at about a grade 12 reading level, which, sadly, is beyond the capability of many high school graduates in the U.S.


Summarize Key Points and Pare Down

Start with the conclusion, then reveal supporting facts. This structural convention is known by journalists as the inverted pyramid. It gives readers the gist quickly and then lets them burrow into the details if they choose to read on. If the first part of the article is dull and unfocused, however, people will likely quit reading anyway.

Tip: The Two-Sentence Test

Ask yourself whether somebody reading the first two sentences on your page will take away the information you want to convey.

People on the Web don't usually stay on the same page for an extended amount of time and feel more productive clicking hyperlinks and traversing from topic to topic. Rather than overwhelming site visitors with extensive content, layer the information on different pages. Start with the key points first and then make it easy for people to drill down. Layering your content satisfies the needs of both casual browsers and serious researchers without sacrificing scannability and completeness.

That said, don't dice your content so fine that it feels disjointed. Keep closely related information on the same page rather than make your users jump from one incomplete part to the next. As long as a page contains highly related information people don't mind a bit of scrolling.

Keeping It Short and Sweet

We can't stress this enough: Long, rambling text frustrates audiences. In general, the word count for Web content should be about half of that used in conventional writing.

Cutting back is easier said than done. It takes courage and practice to carve your writing down to the essentials. But cutting back on word count doesn't mean leaving out important details. When done well, trimmed and scannable content conveys the same information and is more helpful to your readers.

When running long documents, it's not enough to simply break them into smaller parts with a generic Continue link at the bottom of each page. Instead create links such as "The Vice President's Response" or "Day Three of the Race," which tell people what information comes next when they click.

If you just want to know what you can bring back into the country from travel abroad, this page won't help. People in our study struggled with the convoluted content. The first few paragraphs should have answered the question, but instead they address specific situations and consequences that apply only to a limited number of users. While this level of detail is important, it doesn' belong at the beginning. The boldface text "along with any vehicle used to transport them" might have some significance to the writer, but it doesn't to readers.

"It's smacking me with too much information first off. There's loads of information. Loads of text really."


Our users who visited this site had difficulty understanding what an IRA account was because the information was poorly organized and explained. The site elaborates specific details before establishing the main points, causing confusion. The first sentence attempts to describe the account, but the definition is so generic that it might almost apply to many other accounts. In addition, it's not clear what the differences are between "Traditional" and "Roth IRA" accounts. Convoluted banking jargon such as "Employer's Qualified Pension Plan" and "mandatory distribution" makes it arduous for people to pick the right product.


There's no need to literally welcome people to your site. While this might be considered a minor criticism, the point is to reduce unnecessary verbiage whenever possible. One word here and there slowly adds up, unnecessarily increasing the complexity of the site. Also, notice the use of buzzwords such as "look," "apply," and "find." These terms might leave people wondering: Look for what? Apply for what? Find what? Better to use more descriptive phrases.


Tip: Writing Descriptive Labels

We've selected a few label names from the Citibank Web site and renamed them to give you an idea of how using the right names can improve communication. The original labels are clever and snappy but not the best at conveying meaning. The revised version is better because it lets people know what they're going to get without any guesswork.

Original Labels

Suggested Labels


Products and Services


Apply for an Account



Avoid meaningless headers. "Know What?" and "What Now?" might be cute in concept, but they don't really communicate anything useful.


(Facing page, top) The repetition of words such as "Click here to" and "Click here for" clutters the page, making it difficult to quickly scan the links and hone in on the important ones. Most people now know how to recognize links, so you can eliminate the instruction to click and identify links with information-carrying words.


(Facing page, bottom) Overuse of the words "Palm Beach County" diverts attention from the key terms on this site, making scanning difficult. Visitors already know they're in a section on Palm Beach County, so repeating it adds no value.


What's the key term here? In this design, the links appear to be the most prominent, but they convey the least amount of information. Better to simplify this screen by eliminating the links and instead making the most important information, such as times and dates, clickable. The title of the page already tells us that all listings are for 'O' by Cirque Du Soleil, no reason to repeat it.


(Facing page, bottom) The title says to choose a calculator, but the main page doesn't show the choices clearly, and the names of the calculators don't help. Extraneous notes and tips clutter the page, while the tools people want are mostly hidden below the viewable browser window. Bolded words such as retirement and disability call attention to random terms that don't communicate anything useful.

"Oh, my God! Way too much text!"


Prioritizing Web Usability
Prioritizing Web Usability
ISBN: 0321350316
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 107

Similar book on Amazon

flylib.com © 2008-2017.
If you may any questions please contact us: flylib@qtcs.net