Readability on the web

How users read

Gov.uk have published their Service Design Manual, an amazingly comprehensive resource about digital service delivery. This particular section outlines the background to the Government Digital Service’s thinking when it comes to writing content.

Users only really read 20-28% of a web page. With services, where users just want to complete the task as quickly as possible, you have added user impatience so you may find users skim words even more.

Website reading: It (sometimes) does happen

We know that on average users only read around a quarter of the text on a webpage. But we also know that sometimes users do read more. Jakob Nielsen assessed what makes a user start reading word for word. He highlights good information architecture and good page layout with well-written subheadings as being essential.

…helpful IA and effective page layout are key to getting users to read your copy. However, our eyetracking data also detected a third ingredient for converting users from scanners to readers: high-quality writing.

Sorry, no real surprise — although we’ve identified 83 detailed guidelines for web content, they really boil down to that. Having guided people to your content, it must be good.

The Readability Test Tool

When writing for the web, it is important to write clearly and avoid jargon. You can check text against a variety of readability tests using this tool.

Opinions vary on which tests are the most accurate or valid. But it can still be useful to check text to ensure that it can be easily understood by as many people as possible.

Microcopy and calls to action

There is a theme to this week’s selection – microcopy. Microcopy is the really short items of content – navigation labels, the wording of submit buttons, and so on. This can have a big effect on the success of a website. We know it is difficult to get right. But it is important to get it right.

Five ways to prevent bad microcopy

Microcopy is often treated as an afterthought, but it is becoming increasingly clear that good microcopy is essential from a usability standpoint, and is worth spending some time on. This article contains some great tips on how we might solve this tricky problem.

Microcopy often falls victim to personal bias, internal terminology, poor branding, broken contextual flows, time crunches and other factors. Any of these can undermine even the most well-designed UX and the copy within.

Whoopsy daisy log-ins: a further look at good and bad micro-copywriting

This article highlights some examples of microcopy from four of the biggest tech companies in the world: Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Google. Some are more successful than others.

20 dos and don’ts for clickable calls to action

We normally want users to ultimately complete some sort of goal. We use calls to action to help users along. This is a selection of useful suggestions on how to optimise calls to action.

T4 Site Manager and writing for the web training sessions

We are now making a more concerted effort to provide training to our users on a more regular basis.

TerminalFour Site Manager

T4 Site Manager training will now be held monthly.

This session gives an overview of Site Manager and how to add and edit content. It is intended for those who have not used Site Manager before, or for those who would like a refresher.

The next sessions will be held on the following dates:

  • Monday 12 March 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 16 April 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 14 May 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 11 June 2012 — 2pm to 5pm

Book a place on a T4 Site Manager training session using PDMS.

Training takes place in the Swallowgate PC classroom, on the corner of Butts Wynd and The Scores (view map).

Writing for the web

For the first time, we will also now be offering regular writing for the web training sessions.

When writing for the web your content needs to be concise and scannable. Users find it harder to read from a screen than from paper, so special techniques are required to ensure that your message gets across on the web. We need to write our content in such a way that we help users find the information they are looking for as quickly as possible.

We have become increasingly aware that the quality of content on the University website can vary greatly. By offering users the opportunity to learn about the techniques required to write suitably for the web, we hope to help improve the quality of the website.

These sessions will also run monthly. The next few sessions will be on the following dates:

  • Monday 26 March 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 30 April 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 28 May 2012 — 2pm to 5pm
  • Monday 25 June 2012 — 2pm to 5pm

Book a place on a writing for the web training session using PDMS.

Training takes place in the Swallowgate PC classroom, on the corner of Butts Wynd and The Scores (view map).

Web team clinic

We are also continuing to run the monthly web team clinic. If you have any queries on anything to do with the web, we are here to help.

The clinic runs on the second Friday of every month, from 12 noon until 2pm. The next few clinics will be on the following dates:

  • Friday 9 March 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm
  • Friday 13 April 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm
  • Friday 11 May 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm
  • Friday 8 June 2012 — 12 noon to 2pm

Book a slot on a web team clinic using PDMS.

The web team clinic takes place at web team HQ, room 6 in Butts Wynd Building.

Help us prevent broken links on the University website

One of the most frequent problems with content on the University website is broken links. Frustratingly, many of these broken links are perfectly avoidable. With a bit of extra care, content owners can take one simple step to help prevent broken links.

The problem with hard-coded links

If you are familiar with HTML and are used to hand-coding your own webpages, you may feel most comfortable using hard-coded links, where the URL of the destination page is defined in the code. This method works.

This is also the type of link created if you use the ‘Insert/edit link’ button in the editor in T4 Site Manager.

Hard-coded link button on the TinyMCE interface

However, over time these links begin to break. As pages are moved, edited or deleted, URLs are liable to change. So if you have a hard-coded link, it will have to be manually fixed — or there will be broken links on the website.

For this reason, this sort of link is reserved for external links only, or for links to items not within T4 Site Manager.

Section links in TerminalFour Site Manager

To avoid this problem, you can use the ‘section link’ feature within T4 Site Manager.

Section link button on the TinyMCE interface

Clicking this button will display a pop-up window that displays the structure of the University website. From here you can select the page you wish to link to.

This creates a special piece of code that is used by Site Manager to automatically generate the link. So, if the page that you link to gets moved to a different location, the link automatically updates across the website.

If section links were used for all internal links within the University website, we could significantly reduce the amount of broken links and links to outdated content.

Media Library documents

It is even more vitally important that hard-coded links to documents in the Media Library such as Word documents or PDFs are avoided. Linking directly to the URL of a document may work in the short run, but in the medium to long term it significantly increases the risk of linking to outdated documents.

The correct way of linking to an item in the Media Library is to use the ‘Insert Media’ button.

Insert media button on the TinyMCE interface

With your help, using this method can significantly reduce the number of broken links across the website.

Learn about writing for the web

The University’s Staff Development team is providing a course on writing for the web. It will take place 19 November from 1.15 pm to 4.30 pm at Seminar Rooms 3 and 4, David Russell Apartments.

If you produce content for the University website, you may want to attend this course. Here is why, according to the course details:

When writing for the Web your content needs to be concise, scannable and objective. Users find it harder to read from a screen than paper so they scan the page looking for what they want – you probably do it too – so as Web content creators we need to write our content in such a way that we help users get what they want as quickly as possible.

This short course will help you understand:

  • The benefits of good writing for the Web
  • Why the Web is different
  • The importance of structured content
  • How to write for the Web
  • How to easily maintain and revise content

This is part two of a two module course with the first module being Clear, Concise & Comprehensive Writing. Participants can register for either or both of the modules running on 19 November. Lunch will be provided for those who have registered for both modules.

Book a place online now if this sounds like the course for you.

Gareth has been busy working on this. I was going to be involved, but I can’t as it turns out I will be at T44U in Dublin when the course is taking place.

Horizon scanning at IWMW10

Earlier this month Gareth and I attended the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2010 (IWMW10), held at the University of Sheffield. It was my first time at IWMW, and since I still feel slightly new to the Web in a higher education environment, it was a good opportunity for me to take in the sorts of issues that are commonly faced by institutional web teams.

Turbulece (sky before a thunderstorm)

Turbulent times - we certainly experienced that in Sheffield's weather

It turns out that, right now, the main issue is the effect of the economy. The theme for this year’s IWMW was ‘the web in turbulent times’. Many of the presentations focussed on the doom and gloom. This, coupled with the horrendous weather we experienced while in Sheffield, did little to dispel the stereotype that it’s grim up north (or, in our case, a couple of hundred miles down south).

Luckily, there was plenty of techy chit-chat too. It still fits in with the theme. The web is permanently turbulent. (I think it was designed like that because turbulence creates bigger waves, leading to a more enjoyable surfing experience.)

One of the key characteristics of the web for me is the fact that it is always changing, always developing. Once you’ve got on top of it, something else comes along for you to learn. That is what makes working in the web such an interesting challenge.

An update to the language of the web

Two of the biggest developments on the horizon were covered by one speaker, Patrick H Lauke from Opera Software. The first was HTML5 (and friends), the upcoming update to the language of the web.

The headline is that HTML5 does not replace the existing version of HTML. It is the same but with “more bling”. By the looks of it, it will be much easier and more intuitive to code as well. But the specification is not yet complete, and there are hurdles still to leap in the form of compatibility, accessibility and a question mark over video formats.

We were given a demonstration of some HTML5 functionality in the Opera browser. A lot of what HTML5 adds is exciting and sensible. But I think there will be a rough period while the creases are ironed out. The demonstration was promising, but it is clearly not yet the finished product.

Nonetheless, I read an interesting article recently outlining five reasons why you can use HTML5 today. It’s definitely something we should be turning our attention to sooner rather than later.

Mobile web

Later, in a smaller breakout session, Patrick H Lauke spoke about the mobile web and how to make your website mobile-friendly. Phones are becoming ‘smarter’ and connectivity is advancing. People will increasingly come to expect to be able to browse the web while out and about just as efficiently as they can on a desktop machine.

But the mobile web throws up a whole extra set of issues, adding to the already-complex set of challenges we have been accustomed to facing for years. There is a huge range of screen sizes and browsers in use, and mobile web designs must try to accommodate them all. Then there is the question of how to streamline the website for mobiles without ‘dumbing down’ the content.

Like HTML5, the mobile web still has a bit to go. As we found out in Sheffield, the mobile web cannot yet be fully relied upon in the same way we can rely upon the web on a PC. But that is why HTML5 and the mobile web are for the future, even though we need to start thinking about them now.

Reflections on my first IWMW

Overall, I found my first IWMW to be a great learning experience. It has given me plenty to think about. Although I was of course aware of the issues surrounding HTML5 and the mobile web, what I learnt at IWMW has helped me focus on the key aspects to look towards.

In addition, there were plenty of other interesting talks. Particular standouts included Jeremy Speller’s about disaster communication in a crisis and Paul Boag’s persuasive presentation about cutting down the amount of content on an unwieldy website.

Due to the anticipated sector-wide cutbacks, there is uncertainty about whether IWMW will take place next year. I think it would be a real shame if it was not held in 2011, because at my first IWMW it was clear that the event is a hugely useful way to discuss ideas and meet people facing similar issues.