Usefulness in Web-Writing
Plain language is even more important in writing for the web than it is for paper documents. Why? Because people scan when they read documents online. People need structure to help find the content they want so they can use it and appreciate the experience. Typical web users (certainly a reader of government content) want information that helps them complete tasks. As web readers, we want to synthesize content, make decisions, and act. Understandable content is critical.
During the past decade, research has emerged to support those of us who craft web content. As you venture beyond this site, you will encounter research from empirical studies of people comprehending and using documents. You'll learn ways of structuring your text so you can respond to each user's expectations, and you'll find tips on how to create usable websites.
Research guidelines support usable web structure.
The National Cancer Institute recognized that principles of good design and usability apply to anyone who works with information. The Institute's site on Research Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines provides more than 50 of the top web design and usability guidelines based on emerging research related to web content. The entire document can be downloaded as a pdf.
Help readers scan
Seminal research published by Jakob Nielsen indicates reading from a computer screen is 25% slower than reading on paper. And another study by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen found that 79% of test users always scanned any new page they came across, while only 16% read word-by-word. As web writers, we can enable better document-scanning by providing clear links, headings, short phrases and sentences, and short paragraphs. In other words, plain language matters. Specific content can be found at www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/external link.
Use task-oriented writing to help users get their jobs done.
Readers of web documents expect to be guided through documents and supported in their decision-making. To help them, we must write information so it supports the tasks people want to complete. Before we start to write, we must create a user-focused foundation by exploring who will be using a website, what they want to accomplish on the website, and the context in which they will be using the site. Value in web-writing comes from fully understanding what people want to accomplish and then supporting them as fully as possible. Refer to www.usagov.gov, "Citizens: Get it done online," for examples of user-focused and task-oriented labeling. For specific guidance on writing web content, download usability guidelines related to web content from usability.gov.
Follow standards and be consistent
Readers of websites expect writing to be consistent in tone and style. This may challenge any organization with several writers; but by following standards for plain language, you can ensure that writing on a website is uniform and consistent. One way to maintain consistency is to develop and follow web content standards such as the Recommended Policies and Guidelines for Federal Public websites: Final Report of the Interagency Committee on Government Information (submitted to the Office of Management and Budget, June 9, 2004)
Consider the following recommendations:
- Help citizens identify official federal government websites
- Write and organize from the audience's point of view
- Design and write so sites are easy to access and use
- Comply with Federal laws (set out in the guidelines)
For a quick summary of federal tips, refer to web content standards such as those developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.