Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web)

by Jakob Nielsen on March 15, 1997

The three main guidelines for writing for the Web are:

  • Be succinct : write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication
  • Write for scannability : don't require users to read long continuous blocks of text
  • Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages

Short Texts

Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper. Even users who don't know this human factors research usually say that they feel unpleasant when reading online text. As a result, people don't want to read a lot of text from computer screens: you should write 50% less text and not just 25% less since it's not only a matter of reading speed but also a matter of feeling good. We also know that users don't like to scroll: one more reason to keep pages short.

The screen readability problem will be solved in the future, since screens with 300 dpi resolution have been invented and have been found to have as good readability as paper. High-resolution screens are currently too expensive (high-end monitors in commercial use have about 110 dpi), but will be available in a few years and common ten years from now.

Scannability

Because it is so painful to read text on computer screens and because the online experience seems to foster some amount of impatience, users tend not to read streams of text fully. Instead, users scan text and pick out keywords, sentences, and paragraphs of interest while skipping over those parts of the text they care less about.

Skimming instead of reading is a fact of the Web and has been confirmed by countless usability studies. Webwriters have to acknowledge this fact and write for scannability:

  • Structure articles with two or even three levels of headlines (a general page heading plus subheads - and sub-sub-heads when appropriate). Nested headings also facilitate access for blind users with screenreaders
  • Use meaningful rather than "cute" headings (i.e., reading a heading should tell the user what the page or section is about)
  • Use highlighting and emphasis to make important words catch the user's eye. Colored text can also be used for emphasis, and hypertext anchors stand out by virtue of being blue and underlined

Hypertext Structure

Make text short without sacrificing depth of content by splitting the information up into multiple nodes connected by hypertext links. Each page can be brief and yet the full hyperspace can contain much more information than would be feasible in a printed article. Long and detailed background information can be relegated to secondary pages; similarly, information of interest to a minority of readers can be made available through a link without penalizing those readers who don't want it.

Hypertext should not be used to segment a long linear story into multiple pages: having to download several segments slows down reading and makes printing more difficult. Proper hypertext structure is not a single flow "continued on page 2" ; instead split the information into coherent chunks that each focus on a certain topic . The guiding principle should be to allow readers to select those topics they care about and only download those pages. In other words, the hypertext structure should be based on an audience analysis .

Each hypertext page should be written according to the " inverse pyramid " principle and start with a short conclusion so that users can get the gist of the page even if they don't read all of it.


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