Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace

by Jakob Nielsen on June 1, 1996

Frames: Just say No!

This succinct introduction is an example of the inverted pyramid style: starting with the conclusion. If I wanted to write a column about frames I would continue with one or two examples of why frames suck (can't bookmark or print a view) and conclude with a discussion of the fundamental issues (frames impair the user's navigation and break the fundamental user model of the Web as being composed of unitary pages).

One of the occupational hazards of getting a Ph.D. is a distinct predilection for the traditional pyramid style of exposition. I normally write the way I was trained to write: starting with the foundation and gradually building to the conclusion. Most research papers and engineering reports open with a problem statement, then review the prior art, and move into a detailed discussion of the different options that are considered and the methods that are used. After plowing through twenty pages of basics the patient reader may find a section entitled results with detailed tables, charts, and statistical tests; and after an additional five pages of this, a page or so of conclusions is reached. Phew...

Journalists have long adhered to the inverse approach: start the article by telling the reader the conclusion ("After long debate, the Assembly voted to increase state taxes by 10 percent"), follow by the most important supporting information, and end by giving the background. This style is known as the inverted pyramid for the simple reason that it turns the traditional pyramid style around. Inverted-pyramid writing is useful for newspapers because readers can stop at any time and will still get the most important parts of the article.

On the Web, the inverted pyramid becomes even more important since we know from several user studies that users don't scroll(*), so they will very frequently be left to read only the top part of an article. Very interested readers will scroll, and these few motivated souls will reach the foundation of the pyramid and get the full story in all its gory detail.

Journalism on the Web is definitely different from print journalism. For example, Melinda McAdams' case study of the Washington Post's Digital Ink notes that online newspapers allow articles to remain available online for years. This again means that writers can link to old articles instead of having to summarize background information in every article. Also, as noted by Sam Vincent Meddis, it is possible to link to full background materials and to construct digests of links to multiple treatments of an issue.

In other words, the Web is a linking medium and we know from hypertext theory that writing for interlinked information spaces is different than writing linear flows of text. In fact, George Landow, a Professor of English literature, coined the phrases rhetoric of departure and rhetoric of arrival to indicate the need for both ends of the link to give users some understanding of where they can go as well as why the arrival page is of relevance to them.

Therefore, we would expect Web writers to split their writing into smaller, coherent pieces to avoid long scrolling pages. Each page would be structured as an inverted pyramid, but the entire work would seem more like a set of pyramids floating in cyberspace than as a traditional "article". Unfortunately, it is hard to learn this new writing style. I am certainly not there yet myself, as you can see.

(*) Update Added 2003

In 1996, I said that "users don't scroll." This was true at the time: many, if not most, users only looked at the visible part of the page and rarely scrolled below the fold.

The evolution of the Web has changed this conclusion. As users got more experience with scrolling pages, many of them started scrolling. (See my article "Changes in Web Usability Since 1994" for more details on this and other changes.)

It is still a good guideline to ensure that all the most important information appears above the fold and to avoid overly long pages.

Update Added 2011

For pretty dramatic changes in the findings on when and why users scroll or don't scroll, please see our seminar on Top Web UX Guidelines.

We got several interesting findings about users' detailed reading behavior in our eyetracking studies. See in particular findings on the vertical distribution of user attention down the page.

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