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Don’t Make Me Read:
Use and abuse of text in web page design

(interactions magazine July/August 2003)

I’m a great admirer of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think and recommend it to anyone who wants only a single book on the subject of web usability. Steve’s chapter on text is based on Strunk and White’s reminder to “omit needless words”. It’s a point well worth making and the chapter does an admirable job of reducing 103 words of instruction on a web page to a just-about-bearable 41.

However, in recent usability evaluations, several other text-related problems have become common themes. They don’t quite warrant a new book on their own (despite the very promising title), but they should be included in general guidance on how to avoid text abuse on the web. The first set concerns online prose:

  • Use the “inverted pyramid” writing style. This is a style of writing often used in journalism. A summary of the article appears first. Interested readers go on to get more detail. Uninterested readers go on to the next item.

  • Provide links into long articles. Anything longer than a few paragraphs ought to be preceded by a brief list of headings that link to appropriate sections. Not only will this give the content an explicit structure, but it will help with accessibility.

  • Avoid using external documents for material that needs to be read online. Word documents, Acrobat files and the like generally present a host of usability and accessibility problems, including but not limited to: horizontal scrolling, slow loading, no loading (missing plug-in), lack of navigation, exclusion from search engines.

  • Excise gratuitous instructions. To be fair, Steve does touch on this point but I think it is worth repeating. Users read instructions only after all else has failed (think about the last time you read installation instructions before it went horribly wrong). Anything along the lines of “fill in these fields and click the button at the bottom” can be removed without hesitation. Significantly more elaborate prose probably means the basic page design is too complex. Go back to the drawing board.

The second set describes a much more ticklish area, where a few words need to be used in just the right way to describe navigation and selection options:

  • Use terms that are appropriate to the intended users, unambiguous and discriminable. Also make sure that discriminability takes place at both the lexical and semantic levels. That’s to say that words and phrases should look different and mean different things. So while no one should have trouble misreading “show” for “view”, the words mean virtually the same thing to many people.

  • Ensure categories do not overlap, or if they do that you are prepared to put appropriate items in both.

  • Put the important words in a phrase at the front in order to reduce the amount of reading users have to do to reach a decision.

  • Do not rely on users reading every single item in a list before making a selection (they won’t). If you are having a hard time making each item self-contained, put more specific items at the top of the list so users can stop at the first item that applies (becoming more general towards the bottom of the list).

  • If list items are self-contained, put them in order of popularity. For long lists, put popular items at the top, then all items in alphabetical order (with a break in between).

Finally, some suggestions on page design in general with a view to less reading on the part of users:

  • Do not make pages more complex than they need to be for the majority of users. Controls, labels and instructions that only apply in 20% of cases make life miserable for 80% of users. Either
    • design a different path for advanced users or
    • make use of progressive disclosure. More experienced, less-harassed or just plain curious users will be motivated to explore. Use drop-down menus or other roll-overs for advanced features (but don’t forget accessibility for assistive technologies)
  • Be smart about consistency. Don’t try to apply the same set of rules to your full-time call center staff as you do your occasional e-commerce customers. Branding and marketing are important considerations for an extranet, but they must not outweigh the needs for efficient tools internally.

The overriding theme of all this is that design really does need to be visually obvious. While some text is unavoidable, consider every word you place on a page and decide whether you could do without it by providing better visual clues or approaching the problem a different way. Remember that a user interface is usually the journey, not the destination. In most cases users are in quite a hurry to get where they’re going.

Bibliography

Steve Krug (2000), Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Penguin Books, London (also at Amazon.co.uk)

William Strunk, E.B. White and Roger Angell (2000), The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, Pearson Higher Education, Upper Saddle River, NJ (also at Amazon.co.uk)

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in interactions, {Volume 10, Issue 4, July-August 2003} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/838830.838883

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