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Website Content Usability

In recent articles we have discussed the importance of layout and navigation in creating a website with a high usability rating. However, all the best navigation in the world will do you no good if your visitors are navigating around bad content. Beauty may be skin deep, but usability isn’t just about looking good.

In last month’s article we compared a website to a bighouse with lots of rooms and hallways. Imagine your content is the interior decoration of that house. You are the host or hostess. If your house is interesting, eye-catching, and enjoyable, your guests may even want to come back for more!

When we say, “content”, we mean your website copy, your message. Websites have a million different messages and a million different ways to say things, but there are some basic content usability guidelines that are appropriate for everyone.

First one should realize that when internet users “read” a web page, they do not read it as carefully as they would, say, a book. They scan. In a 1997 study by Jakob Nielsen and John Morkes, 79% of the people tested scanned pages, while only 16 % read word-for-word. For one reason, they aren’t sure if this web page even has the information they need. Another reason is that people are simply impatient and looking for where to click next.

So the best way to respond to this behavior is to make your website copy easy to scan. Nielsen and Morkes study came up with several guidelines for doing so:

1) Highlight or bold your keywords, so a reader can pick out the important words and main ideas right away
2) Make your headings meaningful and informative, not too clever or vague
3) Use bulleted lists
4) Keep paragraphs short and make only one point in each, as users might only read the first few lines and miss any additional ideas
5) Cut your word count in half!

That last tip might seem usual, but it is true. In college you may have struggled to stretch out a 10-page paper into a 15-page paper, but on the Internet, less is more.

Nielsen and Morkes study examined increased usability in website content by presenting the same paragraph in 5 different ways. The control version was in the original “marketese” common in e-commerce websites. They then rewrote the control content is concise layout, scannable layout, objective language, and a combination of the three.

• The concise content had half the word count.
• The scannable version was the same text as the control version, but presented in a bulleted list.
• The objective content removed all exaggerated sales-y language from the control version.
• The combination of all three styles was concise, scannable, and objective.

The usability improvement over the control version, tested based on time, error, memory and site structure, was as follows:

Concise: 58%
Scannable: 47%
Objective: 27%
Combination: 124%

As you can see, content that is concise, scannable, and objective is also usable. Nielsen and Morkes also determined that exaggerated and sales-y copy slows down readers, who immediately get put on the defensive. When they read “we sell the greatest pie in the world” they immediately think “no, my grandma does”. Users do not wish to have to dig through hyperbole to find the facts. They just want the facts presented to them up front.

Amy Gahran, editor of CONTENTIOUS, an e-Zine for online copy writers, reviews popular websites and ranks them as either “contenders”, those who have good content, or “fluff”, those who have useless content. A site that has “fluffy” content does not achieve its goals. We will not go into her specific complaints about each site, but you can read her essays at www.contentious.com.

Gahran emphasizes the value of microcontent, a term that describes all the little bits of information you sprinkle about your site for users to get “at-a-glance”. You navigation bar is microcontent. Microcontent also includes headlines, page titles, and subject lines. Lots of information can be conveyed in very few words.

Many website copywriters suggest using the “inverted pyramid style” most often found in newspaper articles. As in a newspaper article, you lead with the conclusion, and then use the facts to back your argument, rather than slowly building your argument to the ultimate conclusion. This way your reader can see the point right away, and then scan for the details as they see fit. The inverted style pyramid saves the reader time, and saves you some customers, since many people will not read a whole article anyways.

Even though we compare the content of website copy to that of a newspaper article, do not think that people will read them the exact same way. Newspapers are actually much easier on the eyes than a computer screen. Users read 25% more slowly from screens, due to that difference in reading comfort. So not only are you competing with your users’ attention span, you are competing with their natural speed. 73% of Nielsen's subjects said they would leave a site if they were bored and had to wait for things to load or look around a lot for the information they wanted. They want to be “in and out”.

Users may be dealing with a great deal of discomfort when using computers. On average, humans blink 12 to 15 times per minute. During intense tasks, or looking back and forth such as during data entry, or doing anything that require long period of staring at the screen, blinking can be reduced. Optometrist Dr. Gary J. Williams explains that reduced blinking during intense tasks can cause eye discomfort, dry eye, eye strain, and blurring.

Dr. Williams suggest that website designers use plain text fonts closely similar to those found in usual hard copy publications such as newspapers or books. He recommends short lines of print, space between lines, and dark, not bright, colors. Distracting backgrounds or backgrounds that do not contrast enough with the text can be frustratingly distracting and difficult on the yes as well.

Though you should consider that your content is to be viewed on a glowing computer screen, you should also consider that your content really is a medium that deserves the time and care that other forms of publication deserve.

Content-management expert Gerry McGovern is the author the books “Content Critical” and “The Website Content Guide”. World-renowned for his work, McGovern approaches the web medium as a form of publication. He views the words on your page to be the most critical aspect of your design, though his approach does not ignore the value of navigation and graphics, he feels that actions are ultimately driven by words.

McGovern stresses that currently, the popular idea is that if you simply make all your content available, people will find it and read it. But availability does not directly translate to usability.

McGovern leads daylong seminars in content usability where he explains what he feels are key steps to approaching website content as a publication: create, edit, and publish. He also stresses information architecture, or how you organize and present your content. The Inverted Pyramid Style is a form of information architecture, as is the practice of organizing information into chunks and bulleted lists.

Remember “the 7 plus or minus 2 rule”. In their short-term memory, the average person can store seven bits of information at once, plus or minus two. For this reason, breaking your content into smaller bit of information will make your information easier for your readers to process and remember.

Many usability experts recommend that you break up your information as much as possible. However, according to human factors engineer and usability professional John S. Rhodes, this does not mean you should take your current site of ten pages and divide the same information out into 40 pages. Since your users will be navigating rather quickly, you do not want them to get so click-happy that they forget what they saw three pages ago. It is easier to scroll up and down several paragraphs than it is to click the back and forwards button searching for what you want. Keeping similar information on one page makes reference easier.

For example, in his article “Human Memory Limitations and Website Usability”, Rhodes keeps it all on one long page. He puts the main idea of each paragraph in bold font. This way, the reader can easily see each point. Someone researching content usability can scan this article for relevance, and then, as they read the article, scroll up and down to refer back to various points throughout the piece.

This is why bulleted lists and bolded keywords are so important. They make scanning easier, make short-term memory processing easier, and make the users better able to comprehend the information presented to them.

Rhodes stresses the idea of recognition versus recall. If you ask your users to take time remembering things, you run into the problems of the limitation of human memory, including that infamous “7 plus or minus 2 rules”. Better to limit how much you ask your users to remember, passwords for example, only doing so when necessary.

You may be surprised at the suggestion that scrolling is ok. Most people would assume users do not want to scroll. But according to author Joshua Porter, users don’t actually mind at all. Like Rhodes, he says that users do not like being forced to click back and forth through many pages, a term called “pogo sticking”. Users do not want a bunch of clicks.

You have probably heard of the “Three Click Rule”: if they can’t find the information they need in three clicks, users get frustrated and give up. But is that true? Nowadays, most people would agree that it is a suggestion, not a law. Porter conducted a study of over 8,000 clicks from 44 users attempting 620 tasks. The study found that users were no less likely to keep clicking after 3 clicks, 12, or even 25. Though many tasks were successful after only 3 clicks, users kept going even if 3 weren’t enough. Based on this study, the 3 Click Rule does not seem to be set in stone.

But just because the Three Click Rule does not apply to each and every user does not mean it is a bad idea to employ the practices it suggests. When discussing the viability of the rule, most website designers would say that no matter how many clicks are involved, focusing on your information structure and making sure it is optimized for your users success is always a good idea.

Gerry McGovern insists that creativity need not be sacrificed for structure and standards, so long as we all move within those standards. Information architecture, just like navigation, needs to be consistent across the Internet in order to maximize usability. Users work best with what is familiar, and that goes for content and content structure as well. McGovern uses HTML (Hyper-text Markup Language) as an example of a revolution on standardizing the way information is presented on the Internet. With HTML, information can be viewed in a standardized presentation.

But now comes XML, the evolution of HTML. XML (Extensible Markup Language) brings us new standards. Our standards NEED to evolve in order to keep up with the information overload we are facing- over 2.5 billion documents are in the internet, increasing by 7.5 million a day. Keeping a standard for the way we find, organize, and process these documents is necessary for their usability.

Bill Gates and Microsoft support XML. Gates has called XML “the third phase of the Internet”. Use of the XML standard is rising, as companies and organizations such as Reuters, the US Patent Office, and Continental Airways have all begun implementing it. The economy of information is just as important in contemporary business as the economy of products.

Your website is your voice. Yes, it comes with a lot more bells and whistles than a book or a piece of paper. It can be tempting to get wrapped up in theatrics and technology and forget that the basis of all communication is language. Your content is how you speak to your customers, so it should be given as much careful thought and planning as your navigation, layout, and graphics. If you make your content easy to read, process, and understand you will keep your users satisfied, and keep them coming back for more.

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Related Articles and Resources:

Website Usability and You

Website Usability and Navigation

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
http://www.w3.org/

Usability Basics
http://www.usability.gov/basics/index.html

Jakob Nielsen's Website
http://www.useit.com/

For more articles and information please see our website usability resources section.