Writing User Friendly Content

Why is content king? We hear about it all the time. The answer is simple, content is a vital part of your website. If your content is not easy to understand and interpret, then you may easily lose your reader. The content of your website will make or break the experience, no matter how easy to use your website may be.

The first thing to consider while evaluating the copy you’ve written for your website is your audience. For example, on a blog I write about geckos, I tend to use gecko jargon such as ‘feeders’ (insects that geckos eat), ‘hatchlings’ (baby geckos), and ‘herps’ (which could be taken in a dirty sense, but it is short for reptiles and amphibians).

As I use these words in my writing, I have to consider whether or not it is appropriate for my audience. It is important to base your decision of using jargon on the knowledge level of the audience. The key is to know what audience you are trying to reach. If I was to target a general reptile audience, who may not know a specific gecko jargon based word, I would proceed to define it. However, if I was to address an audience who had no reptile experience, I would avoid using jargon words all together.  In addition to knowing the audience, you need to know the spectrum of your audience. If a person interested in geckos, but does not own any yet, and lands on my blog, I want him to understand what he is reading just as easily as a professional breeder. If not, I am limiting my audience.

Overall, knowing your audience sets the stage for other approaches to writing usable content.

Abbreviations Are Too Technical

When you are writing your content, you want to avoid abbreviations. If you must use them, make sure that they are defined somewhere easy and accessible for those who are not familiar with them. Using abbreviations makes sense when extra space is needed. Even then, only commonly known abbreviations should be used.

IRS Abbreviations

IRS.gov uses abbreviations on Tax Professional page

One example of this can be found on IRS.gov. Taxes can be a hassle for anyone without expertise in the field. Regulations are endless and stipulations are relentless. While browsing the IRS page for individuals you see very few abbreviations in the titles of each item available to users. If you navigate to the tax information for tax professionals it is a different story. Section 7216, IRSAC and IRPAC? What? The audience has changed on this page. Abbreviations are more prevalent because this page is tailored to meet the needs of people trained in this field.

Make Headers and the Paragraph’s 1st Sentence Descriptive

The first sentence of a paragraph is the most important. People scan content and there is no stopping that. That being said, the more complex and boring a sentence in your paragraph is, the less likely it is to be read. This is why headers and first sentences are so vital. The goal is to include the main idea of the paragraph while hooking your readers in the first sentence.

News websites are a great example of online content that is victim to constant scanning. CNN sets the tone for each paragraph of their news articles in the first sentence so that a reader can easily browse over an article and get the main ideas quickly. This method can be described as the “inverted pyramid” style of writing, which has the most important information at the top of the paragraph or story and the least important at the bottom.

CNN Article

CNN Articles highlight excellent first sentence usage.

Limit Length and Consider Reading Level

When writing, be sensitive of how long each section of content is growing. A lengthy paragraph can often be split up into several smaller ones. A good rule of thumb is to stick to about six sentences per paragraph. By splitting up large bodies of text, the readability and scan-ability is improved.

Another concept to consider is reading level. When Andrew, David and I discuss the article styles we write here on UX Booth, we commonly acknowledge that Andrew writes at a higher reading level than David or I commonly do. The combined style we use works, though. We understand that Andrew commonly writes to an audience who may have a more in depth understanding of our topic, while David and I balance things out by reaching other audiences easier. The variety in our posts fits our varied audience well.

One tool that I included in my 5 Web Accessibility Improvement Tools was a document readability analyzer. This is a neat tool that helps gauge what reading level you’re writing at.

Remember Basic Composition Lessons

For some of us Composition 101 and 102 were not too long ago. The basics that have been taught to you in your introductory English classes should apply to your content writing as well.

One prime example of this is the use of unnecessary exclamations. Luckily we’ve seen a decrease in the trend to TYPE IN ALL CAPS or overuse exclamation points. It has become standard that on the internet this implies that you are shouting. However, people often still abuse the exclamatory typing. It is seen as shouting, yet some still do not understand why its use should be moderated.

shouting

Marc Perel comments on application’s use of exclamation points.

In addition to writing in a calm, friendly manner by avoiding caps and punctuation abuse, be sure to write in an active voice. Studies have shown that content presented in passive voice are often read aloud in active voice. Make it easier on your users and write actively, just as you were required to do in school.

Summary and Conclusion

Writing user friendly content can be accomplished simply by following a few guidelines. After establishing who your audience is, writing for your audience is easy.

  • Evaluate the experience level of the audience you’re writing to
  • Avoid complex jargon and industry abbreviations unless addressing experts only
  • Utilize headlines and first sentences of paragraphs to maximize potential for easy scanning
  • Be concise and conscious of the reading level you present your content in
  • Follow those rules you learned in English class about exclamation point abuse and writing in the active voice.

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Comments

  1. Great article Matthew with great points!

    A lot of people do not take full advantage of writing for the web. Instead they use the space to write a book, from which they feel good about it but the copy bores readers to death.

    I was motivated to write an article about this as well a couple months back. Please check it out if your interested:
    http://www.shayhowe.com/resource/writing-user-friendly-content/

  2. Excellent article. I completely agree with you. As bloggers and writers, we have to be able to present complicated topics in a simple way. This will not only help readers beginning in the field; it’ll help the more advanced readers too. Making your content accessible to a broader audience will determine how useful your content is.

    Thanks for the great post.

  3. Great article !

    One other good tip is to read your copy out loud. Yes out loud. This helps to trap any clumsy sentences and fiddly words.

    • When I wrote my novel The Poison Pill I asked my daughter to read the chapters out loud. Every time she tripped I would make a note to remove the long words–usually adverbs, especially those ending in ‘ly.’

  4. Here’s another tip: cut out any boastful or promotional language.

    Stuff like “state-of-the-art” or “world-leading”. And cut useless adjectives.

    We got a small but real lift in conversions on a series of store locator pages:

    Old: “Our store is conveniently located in the heart of the city on XXXX Avenue, close to amenities and nearby parking”

    New: “We are on XXXX Avenue opposite McDonald’s. Free parking on the street”

  5. So true. It is such a simple concept but far too many people fail to grasp it. Excellent article.

  6. thank you for the great info.

  7. thanks, great article.
    small typo in first paragraph ‘no mater how easy…’

  8. Great article. Loved reading every bit of it. Thank you very much.

  9. peter apps December 9, 2009

    Many thanks for your well-written article, which pretty well sums up my sentiments about content.

  10. Yes, very nict article. Thanks for sharing. Makes fun to reading.

  11. Wim van Oosterhout December 9, 2009

    It’s even understandable for non-native reader as myself.
    Although I don’t understand all that is mentioned above.
    It’s just a good article for using in all languages.

    (I’m dutch)

  12. relly thank’s I reed you articles they help my

  13. One more useful info for today. Thanks Matthew!

  14. These are some great tips, especially for blog authors and such. I haven’t been to uxbooth before but I’m glad to see such great content here, keep up the nice posts!

  15. Great tips, I was looking for something like this, concise and to the point. Without any extra fat.

    Plus it gives insight to those who has English as their secondary language.

    Keep up the good work, dude.

    - Mudassir

  16. Thanks for this article, it is very useful with some great tips, Thanks

  17. Great article. Very well written and easy to follow.

    I’ve just followed you on twitter too :)

    -Rob

  18. nice article.. thank you .. give me new idea

  19. OMG ! So happy i read your article next after trippingwords.com . i felt bad after i gave him feedback, after reading your article i knew i was right. he rights at a really high reading level which made me not want to read any of his work. u explained this clearly in this article. i agree that you should write at a basic level to keep people drawn to your pages. using big words in posts makes people like me turn it off, our head hurts. and in all the article doesnt makes sense because we dont understand what half of the words mean. my blog vectornpixel.com has article written from the heart. i write like how i talk and it makes people feel me, makes them relate

  20. This is a good reiteration for everyone. We all have common practices but its good to remember comp 101 ;)

    Adcopy for me is a transitioning process into more graphically beautiful websites. Text, now with CSS3 can look like graphics as well.

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