University of Otago workshop, 30/4/2015

The short version

Your writing needs to:

  • Start with your audience, and their purpose
  • Work for people in task mode
  • Get people interested enough to start looking down the page
  • Cater to skim reading and F-shaped browsing
  • Take advantage of the design of headings, subheadings, and links.

The long version

Thanks again to Frank, Lynda, and the team for inviting me down. Also to those from all over the University who listened to me ramble about headings and links and stuff.
My presentation is on Slideshare, but since it’s pretty much just a series of screenshots (plus an adorable Rugby Kitten), this page gives a bit of context. Enjoy.

You have a service job, not a production job

When you’re writing web content at work, you’re producing something for You’re representing your part of the university. But it’s not a production job. Your job is to serve the people who find and read them your words. Good content gives people the information they’re looking for.

Think like a reader

To serve readers well, think about things from their point of view. One example: more people find your words through Google than by navigating through from the homepage. Every page you work on could be someone’s starting point.

But no matter where on the internet they end up, there are only two things people do there.

People only do two things on the internet

Consuming information

The first thing people might do is take in information. They’re reading, or watching videos, or scrolling through images.

Interacting with sites

If you’re not consuming information, you’re doing more – you’re interacting. Posting an update, filling in a form, calculating something, doing your banking, etc. Here, you’re exchanging inputs for outputs. The content you see next depends on what you do.

(By the way, this divide even affects job descriptions)

As an aside, the first time I made notes about this way of looking at the web, it turned into a longish post: Content and UX are twins.

But back to you, and what you do.

To write good content, know your readers

Before you start a piece, make sure you know who it’s for (your audience), and what they want to get out of it (their purpose). What information are they looking for? What outputs do they need?

Top tip: Get the word audience tattooed on one arm and purpose on the
other. Then, whenever you’re about to write something, look at your arms first.

Whatever people are doing, they’re in task mode

‘Task mode’ happens when there’s something you have to do, and other things you’d rather do. If you need to choose papers to enrol in, but you’d rather be watching cat videos, you select papers in task mode.

You want to do it fast, and you want it to be easy.

Good content makes tasks easy

Good content helps people in task mode find the information, and complete the interactions, that they need. Bad content breaks that flow.

Good content is not:

  • Whatever you feel like producing (even if it’s a cute little kitten)
  • Whatever your boss wants to tell people
  • Whatever fills the template
  • Whatever you can get signed off before 5pm

We are the 20%

Web browsing + task mode = people don’t read much

I won’t recount the whole Slate/Chartbeat thing, but…

Even on websites that people browse for fun, heaps of people bounce (i.e. leave) without reading more than a few words. The average reader takes in about 20-30% of your words. Jakob Neilson worked that out ages ago.

But they don’t just start at the top and scroll until they get bored. People find the info they’re after, and they skip the rest. They skim read.

You’re all getting Fs

The F-shape reading pattern that I couldn’t stop talking about is described wonderfully by Jakob Neilson:

People look down the left of the page. They look at headings, buttons and links (which are designed to stand out), and at images. Eyes flick right when there might be something interesting there.

What this means for headings, subheadings, and links

Headings need to quickly confirm to your reader that they’re in the right place. That’s why I told a story about a heading: put your butt somewhere awesome.

Subheadings must help your readers find the parts of the page they want to read. You already use paragraphs to sort your ideas into chunks. Subheadings add helpful labels to those chunks.

  • Put the most important words first, i.e. on the left of screen (to suit F-shaped browsing)
  • Use words that differentiate each section (unlike the Waikato University example in the slides)
  • Test your subheadings: Have someone read through your page, but only the subheadings. Can they tell what it’s all about? Can they work out where to look for specific information?

Links need to tell people where they’re going, and describe the linked content well. See these 5 ways “click here” screws up your website, and read up on making link text good for the reader, good for accessibility, and good for SEO.

Related post: Writing content that’s easy to scan read.

Now, write!

That’s it. The best way to get better is to keep writing. So don’t let me hold you up any longer.

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