How people really read on the InternetBefore you can write content for the Web, you have to be intimately familiar with how users absorb it. If you think that people actually read on the Internet, you’re mistaken, my friend. Many people never bother taking the time to read an entire webpage or article on the Internet. If you’re a designer who’s writing content like an author writes for pages in a book; then you don’t understand your users and are going to drive them away, unfortunately. [pullquote]If you think that people actually read on the Internet, you’re mistaken, my friend[/pullquote] See, the truth of the matter is that people are just skimmers, as the research shows. They enjoy scanning webpages as a way of quickly sorting out if the page’s content is worth their time at all. To facilitate this scanning behavior, your written content should be grouped into smaller paragraphs instead of long blocks of text, which inhibit scanning. Now that you know this, it’s time to design pages to satisfy this user behavior. Regardless of whether you’re also handling copywriting duties, or work with an actual copywriter who creates written content, it’s high time that anything written is extremely readable from the user’s perspective. Here’s how you do it:
1) Shorter and smaller paragraphsSince users are mainly scanners who skim through content, it’s necessary to group your content into small paragraphs. Best practice dictates paragraphs no longer than three or four sentences at the most. But, hey, since brevity is extremely in-demand on the web, take it a step further. Don’t be scared to even write one sentence per paragraph. To stick to this best practice, commit yourself to devoting just one idea per paragraph. This limitation is going to make it easier to write really short paragraphs. Better Homes and Gardens gets this 100%. On their bathroom DIY ideas page, the written content is chunked into short, readable paragraphs of one to three sentences each. Talk about pithiness!
2) Go heavy on the sub-headingsYou can think of sub-headings in written content as guideposts that quickly preview what each new section will be about. As such, they’re very welcome intervals in copy that could otherwise seem overwhelming if it appeared as one, long, uninterrupted chunk of text. A page that encourages smooth scanning will have many sub-headings — just like this article that you’re reading now. Sub-headings also act as prodders, pushing your readers along the length of your content, particularly if they’re interesting or build excitement. After all, subheadings are just mini-headlines, so they work in the same principle as real headlines. CNN’s coverage of the Texas floods epitomizes the use of subheadings to draw the reader in and prompt them further down the written content. Note how each section is broken up with sub-headings that preview the section’s content in a gripping way that’s meant to suck the reader in.
3) Bulleted lists to the rescueIn keeping with the overall theme of keeping things shorter to facilitate better scanning and skimming, we give you bulleted lists. These lists are ideal at condensing and summarizing a section’s most vital ideas. Again, since your web readers don’t care for long content that’s hard to read, bulleted lists enable them to pick out the important facts efficiently and quickly. The logical companions of these bulleted lists are numbered lists. Numbered lists go a step further and highlight either the importance or sequence of a group of points or data. They’re good for when you want to enumerate things for a set of directions or steps. Yahoo! Parenting gets this perfectly. In an article about taking children to a therapist, they number the seven red flags, thereby not only making the content easier to read, but also understand. When you chunk the information in this easy-to-digest way, you make it more likely that your web readers are actually going to come away having learned something.
4) Bold words convey significanceBold-styled words in your copy signal which words and phrases your readers should pay attention to more than others. The fact that they also draw the eye of readers is a bonus. When readers come across bolded words, it immediately tells them that this section is important, and they’ll read and reread them to really understand the meaning being conveyed. Of course, using bold words is a design tactic that can be overused as well. There’s hardly anything worse than excessive bold words on a page because that defeats the purpose of the styling by making it meaningless. Instead, good designers should use bold words sparingly and intelligently. Only the words and phrases that are the most vital to readers’ comprehension should get the bold treatment. [pullquote]When site content isn’t readable or legible, your UX suffers[/pullquote] Wayfair, one of the largest furniture e-commerce retailers on Earth, demonstrates the effective use of bold choice words in its different guides about home décor. For instance, in its guide to choosing the perfect bathroom vanity, the company uses bold words that represent the specific choices that customers looking for a vanity have in each category and stage of the buying process. This encourages readers to absorb the helpful information efficiently, as their eyes naturally hone in on the most important parts of the content.
ConclusionYour clients are losing out if you don’t make a site’s content easily readable. When site content isn’t readable or legible, your UX suffers. This leads to higher bounce rates and, ultimately, a lower conversion rate. You can do a great deal to lower the likelihood of both of these happening, and it all starts with minding how you format and present your content. The goal of stellar web design is always to put yourself in your users’ shoes and anticipate how they’d feel navigating the site you just designed. If they can figure out what they’re looking at, read the content very easily, and understand the main details of site copy, then you’ve done a great job with content formatting. If it’s not, then it’s high time to start making adjustments… fast.
Marc’s a copywriter who covers design news for Web Designer Depot. Find out more about him at thegloriouscompanyltd.com.
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