Summary: Users often see online content out of context and read it with different goals than you envisioned. While you can't predict all such goals, you can plan for multiple uses of your text.
No matter your medium, it's fairly standard advice to simply write for your readers and their tasks. For old media, reader goals are well known, ranging from being entertained (when reading a mystery novel) to getting investment ideas (when reading the Wall St. Journal 's "Markets" section).
Writing for the Web differs, however, because various users might approach a given piece of content in different ways:
- Reading the page. Although thorough reading is a fairly rare behavior for Web users, it certainly does happen.
- Scanning the page to judge whether it's worth reading (or, indeed, whether the site was worth visiting in the first place).
- Scanning the page to locate specific information, which can differ by user. For example, when looking at digital cameras on an e-commerce product page, sophisticated users might look for sensor size, whereas less knowledgeable users might be interested in megapixel count.
- Picking items from a list, such as on a SERP (search engine results page), an e-commerce category page, or a news feed. (News feeds are also called RSS, but please remember to avoid this acronym; this year's usability studies confirm once again that many users have no idea what "RSS" means.)
In some of these scenarios, users see only a small portion of the content displayed out of context. They might, for example, see only a headline, or perhaps a headline, summary, and a thumbnail photo.
Writing for Different Contexts
The first challenge is to write content that will make sense when taken out of context. Fortunately, you can personally assess your content's usability in the most common out-of-context scenarios:
- Does the headline make sense if it's all you see? Does it have sufficient information scent to attract those users who would be interested in the full story? (Note: it shouldn't be misleadingly attractive to users who'd be disappointed if they clicked; yes, you'd gain extra clicks, but you'd lose customers when they left your site in disgust.)
- Does the summary work to supplement the headline when the two pieces of microcontent are displayed together?
- Is the lead picture clear? Lists use small images to represent products or articles; if your image isn't clear, crop it if possible.
Writing for Different User Goals
A second challenge is harder: Is your content helpful to users whose goals differ from those of the main task you wrote for?
We're currently testing how people read weblogs and other alternative Web genres, in preparation for our upcoming seminar, Writing for the Web 2. Our study illuminates the usability problems created when readers and writers approach the same content with conflicting tasks in mind.
One test user was reading the corporate blog for Whole Foods (a big chain of grocery stores) and became interested in a posting about the recent health scare involving peanut butter.
The user's goal was to find out whether the problem affected Skippy brand peanut butter. Because so many food products had been recalled, and because many readers wanted to comment, the blog posting had grown to 28 screenfulls on the 1280x1024 monitor we used for the test session. Overwhelmed by this long scrolling page, the user quickly turned to the within-page search and entered "skippy."
The following screenshot shows what happened: Our test participant quickly found user-contributed content asking, "is Skippy Peanut Butter okay?"
The test participant proceeded to further browse the blog and again searched for "skippy," which led to another user-contributed comment. Ultimately, the test participant concluded that Whole Foods didn't have an answer about Skippy peanut butter.
As the above screenshot shows, a store team member's response appears immediately below Chryl Smith's question about Skippy. So, why did the user overlook this official information, despite the fact that it was (a) adjacent to the question, (b) highlighted, and (c) marked as an official response?
- The response answers two questions in one posting. We know from countless studies of users' reading behavior on websites that people mainly read only the initial part of any piece of content. To read beyond that, users must be convinced of the content's value. Here, that just didn't happen as the crucial first line focused on something other than the user's problem.
- Compounding this problem, the answer's second part didn't repeat the essential keyword, "Skippy," which users might be scanning for. Instead, it mentioned "major national brands of jarred peanut butter," which is broad, generic, and bland — and thus didn't catch the eye.
Modularizing Content for Task Reuse
Although you can't predict what any individual visitor to your site will be looking for, you can write in ways that support alternate goals.
The three most important guidelines are:
- Assume your information will be used out of context. Content might be either displayed in different contexts or users might read only a selected bit of the full page. (The hints above can help you determine whether your information works out of context.)
- Modularize your information, so that each content chunk addresses a single issue. If you cover two things in one chunk, the second will often be overlooked.
- Use specific language. Concrete terms are more likely to help people who have a different perspective on the content. Generic or broad terms can be misinterpreted — or overlooked, as we saw in the example.
Beyond all this, the top guideline of all is to simply recognize the nature of the Web: People will use your copy differently than you expect, and you should try to write with this fact of online life in mind.
Full eyetracking report on how users read on the web is available for download.