Writing Web Pages that Work

When charged with writing web pages, your challenges are more complex than those your paper predecessors faced. In the physical presence of a printed document, people have options. They can thumb through, visually acquaint themselves with the structure, scan and look for key words and overcome deficiencies left by the creator. Viewing information on a computer limits how people can interact with it. These limits and any deficiencies are either amplified or minimized by the creator, i.e., the writer makes it easy or hard for people to interact with the information by the way the information is designed, loaded, structured, sorted, linked and by its length. Writing web pages that work takes thought and planning.

Just as a skilled craftsman knows when and how to use a tool, the information craftsman should know when and how to use web pages to deliver content. Simply placing information on a web page does not make it usable and in some cases may actually be the wrong medium. The web page crafter must think through the audience needs and the purpose of the information before deciding on the presentation. The following are conditions under which a web page offers advantages over other medium:

�· Audience requires access flexibility
�· Information is dynamic and time sensitive
�· Audience is geographically dispersed
�· Information requires frequent updating

Once the decision is made that the web is the best medium, there are many issues to consider before creation or writing begins. The most critical are those surrounding physical realities of bandwidth, browsers and the end user systems. If you are designing pages for high-speed cable connections (high end graphics for example) and a large percentage of your audience is on dial up, you are defeating your information before it arrives. Few people are willing to wait for heavy graphic pages to load. After 30 seconds, they are likely to have “surfed on.” By asking questions at the beginning of your project about the audience technology, you can avoid problems along the development road and find success at the end of it. While you are investigating your audience, be sure you document who they are, i.e., education level, existing level of knowledge on the subject, Internet abilities, how they “feel” or their attitudes toward the information and why they may seek it. The first step in getting people to use information is to sell them on it. The only way to successfully “sell” anything is to know your potential “buyers.” Then you can craft your web page writing to target that audience.

The verbiage you intend to use on your web pages is worthy of a few moments thought. If you are writing for scientists, computer experts or academic scholars, use all those big words that you paid big bucks to learn. They’ll understand them. However, if you are writing for a mixed audience of everyone from the receptionist to the vice president of marketing, think it through. Are they going to understand what you are attempting to communicate? Are they going to need the dictionary to get through it? Are they going to nod their heads and say, “Yes, I understand,” when they really don’t, because they don’t want anyone to think they are dumb? Use the Flesch-Kincaid index (see reference below) to ensure your writing is at the correct level. Hey, I heard that! You are saying they should know the words or learn them. Reality check required here. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want people to understand what you are communicating and act on it appropriately or do you want them to have to work for it. If you make them work for it, expect them to mumble about what a snob, nerd or techy you are and in the end ignore your information. If your audience cannot understand what you are communicating-you are not communicating!

The way you were taught to write in school doesn’t work well when writing web pages. Unless you are creating a story or a college type paper where length is often a key objective, you must remember to “KISS” your information. KISS is an acronym for Keep It Simple, Sally, Simon, Sylvester or any S name that works for you. It has been around a long time, especially in the training world, but it is often unheeded advice, even with paper. Because of the nature of the web KISSing has become more important.

Communication in general is a tricky business, especially in today’s global culture. Language offers stumbling blocks to communication, even when the sender and receiver are speaking the same one. Take a simple word like “pass.” Look in the dictionary and you may be surprised to find how many different definitions there are for this simple word. When KISSing your information try to use the fewest number of words, while surrounding potentially interpretable words with qualifiers. Hugh? Remember when the English teacher made you write sentences for new vocabulary words? You were always reprimanded for sentences like, “The trestle was big,” because the sentence didn’t show that you knew what the word meant. In the case of KISSing the information when writing web pages, you must help the reader make sense of the words. Keep it clear.

Remember in later English classes how you were taught to inject all those descriptive “ly” words to add flare to your writing? “The lovely flower swayed gently in the warm southerly breeze.” That kind of writing is great when you are attempting to entertain, write a story or impress your English teacher. In today’s hectic world of information sharing, this type of writing can waste valuable time and confuse the issue at hand. Writing web pages requires that you stop and smell the flower and move on-no lingering. Choose your words carefully and sparsely. The more words in the sentence the greater the potential for misunderstanding. Write tight.

Acronyms, don’t assume your readers will understand this verbal shorthand that so quickly develops in the work environment. Avoid acronyms, abbreviations, jargon and colloquialisms (see reference below), when engaged in writing web pages, unless they are clearly explained or 100% understood by the audience. If the audience doesn’t understand your information, your information has lost its purpose.

Under the heading of page structure in writing web pages, your next considerations are information sequence and linking. Whether these pages are destined for the Internet or internal Intranet, the issue is always about getting people to use or act on the information provided. You can have the best looking pages in the world, yet if people are uncomfortable with the structure or it is too hard to find what they need, they won’t use them and you have conducted a pointless exercise in their creation.

When writing on paper, you are only limited by how much you can load into your printer. When writing web pages, you have limited “real estate” on which to build your information. Take a look at your computer screen with a browser window open. You probably have at least one tool bar at the top and one at the bottom, if not more. Depending on your monitor size (most people still have an average of a 15 or 17 inch monitor) there isn’t much space left. When writing web pages, what you provide in that single window is your first opportunity to get your audience into the information. In terms of real estate, this is your curb appeal. What the audience sees in that first window can make the difference between them using the information or looking for another source. So, think of this first window as your first impression. If it looks well organized, has plenty of white space and the font is a readable size, the audience may stick with you because the information looks inviting, is not overwhelming and they have begun to trust that you know what you are doing. If the page looks crammed full, the font size means they must squint and there is no clear path to where they want to go, adios.

In the case of web-based information, people want to get in and get out as fast as possible. So, put the important information at the beginning not at the end. Go ahead, get crazy, put an abstract at the beginning or a compelling quote from the material with a link to it within the content. If it is well written, this abstract or quote can act as enticement for the audience and tease them into reading more. Better yet, do what scriptwriters do. Create a logline (see reference below), a single sentence that sums it all up.

You must strike a balance between how much content to place on the page and how much to establish as linking information. The webs ability to use linking (see reference below) to move people in and out of information is an especially useful tool. People hate to scroll, so look for linking opportunities-but don’t send them too far afield or they may not return. Set the link to open in a new window, so the path back is easy to follow. Create link menus at the side of the page based on topics people will want to investigate within your information. Link or navigation bars are often seen at the top or left of the screen. Where is the scroll bar located? On the right. Where does your eye go when the page first comes up? Where does your eye go when you look at a magazine or newspaper? To the upper right in most cases. While I can’t tell you just why people decided to put navigation on the left, it is actually more effective on the right. With the links on the right, the audience is provided with quick access based on their eye movement and it puts reading material to the left where people can read left to right fluidly without having to skip over or be distracted by the left hand navigation. Also, look for opportunities to use content linking (linking within the material) to connect people with interesting facts, history and incidental information, rather than making it part of the page. This helps minimize length, yet offers the reader the opportunity for more.

Give key words and phrases a prominent look within your web page content. Bolding, underlining or color coding (see reference below) can provide the audience with a quick way to scan information for the nuggets they seek most. For example: If you know the audience will be very interested in costs or research data, bold this information so it can be quickly plucked from the body of the content.

The web is a visual medium. If you look back in history (see reference below), before language there were pictures to convey meaning and information. When building and writing web pages, you have a huge opportunity to cash in on the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Look for opportunities to use pictures, structures, drawings, images, graphics, cartoons, or tables to convey information using fewer words. Even something as simple as color can express an idea or convey intensity. The only drawback to graphics is the potential for limited bandwidth at the users end. Use black and white images or line graphics to lessen download time, where this is a factor, and always program your pages to load text first so the audience has something to do while the graphics are loading.

Even if you can’t draw-or think you can’t-now would be a good time to sit down with a piece of paper and make a sketch of the page you intend to create. It will provide you with a basic visual perspective before you or others spend time creating HTML. Turn the page over, wait a minute, then turn it back and pay attention to where your eye gravitates and how the page “feels.” Even if it makes you all warm and fuzzy (after all, it is your baby), get a second or third opinion from others. Don’t tell them your objective for the page, they should be able to tell you, if you have created a workable prototype. Get feedback, then rework the page.

In an effort to pull all this together for you, here is an example situation:

If you know that your audience:

�· has an average of a high school reading level,
�· knows absolutely nothing about the information you plan to provide,
�· is still uncomfortable with technology,
�· has a slow bandwidth and
Ã?· has already expressed reservations about whether or not they will use the information (a change they don’t want),

you face significant challenges, when writing web pages for this audience. The good news is you now have strategies to overcome these potential obstacles.

First you must keep the verbiage at a comfortable level – 12th grade tops. Next you must look for opportunities to explain the information in terms of things the audience already knows, i.e., “It is similar to XYZ in the following ways…” Linking them to existing information about these similar things will help them understand. Make navigation and links simple to use and clear in terms the audience can understand. Never use an icon for a link without a plain English verbal description beside or under it for an audience that may not be familiar with the icon or associated acronyms (do not assume they will know). Make the experience of the information enjoyable for the audience. If they are already uncomfortable with the information or the associated change, the more inviting, compelling and pleasant the web page experience, the more barriers will break down. Don’t antagonize the situation with long downloads, hard to follow instructions, company rhetoric (rah, rah, rah) or poorly organized or excessively linked information. Scrolling should definitely be limited in this case.

Most of us like nice tidy little lists to help us remember what to do, so we don’t have to reread entire bodies of information. In light of that-and for those of you who are just avid list collectors-here are some basic tips for writing web pages:

�· The first page is critical to your success, put out the welcome mat.
�· Know your audience and their technology.
�· KISS your content, write tight, write clear, edit, then edit again.
�· Show more than you tell (it is a visual medium, you can use images to convey meaning instead of text).
�· Limit scrolling by using clearly defined hyperlinks and buttons.
�· Design for flexibility, web content is dynamic.
Ã?· Don’t substitute “flashy” design for good solid content.
�· Ensure the audience sees something interesting within two clicks.

Don’t allow yourself to be limited by what other people have done or are doing. The web is still evolving as a new medium and is full of possibilities. There are probably approaches still to be found and if you experiment, you may be one of the pioneers of a new approach. You don’t have to put a round peg in a square hole just because some web guru said so. If you do what is right for the audience, then you have done it right. Happy web page writing!


This site does not allow deep linking within the content. Since I couldn’t show you what I meant about content links, here are the information links I would have made as reference and a few other interesting places to go.

Definition for the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Index at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch-Kincaid_Readability_Test

Definition for hyperlink at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperlink

The color wheel at Scribblers Kids Art http://www.scribbleskidsart.com/generic.html?pid=84

Cave painting photos, visual communication from http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bclee/rockart/rockart.html

Definition of a logline from Scriptologist http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

Definition of colloquialism from The Free Dictionary http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/colloquialism

Interview with Jared Spool. http://www.informationdesign.org/special/spool_interview.php

Design Patterns: An Evolutionary Step to Managing Complex Sites by Jared Spool.

Information Architecture Made Simple – and No Simpler by Gerry McGovern.

Optimize your Web Copy by Georgina Laidlaw. http://www.sitepoint.com/article/optimize-web-copy

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