6.5: The paradox of control
- Writers (and some editors) fear hypertext because they hope to control the reader's experience.
- Control seems important because without it, the reader may not get the message, or may get the wrong message.
- Readers, however, have never been constrained to follow the order imposed by a writer.
- On the printed page, the reader's eye has always been free to bounce and skip, to return or not.
- Readers bring with them all their past experience and knowledge, which the writer cannot control (or even make many assumptions about)
- These determine the readers' interests
Both of these are true:
- The writer does not give up control in hypertext.
- The reader has always had a large degree of control.
Carhenge near Alliance, Neb. In writing about it, avoid the hyperbole of “marketese.”
How users read on the Web
They don't, or so say Jakob Nielsen and John Morkes, who have conducted several studies on Web site use. They write:
- People rarely read Web pages word by word.
- Instead they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
- In a 1997 study, John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen found that 79 percent of test users always scanned any new page they came across
- Only 16 percent read word-by-word.
As a result, Web pages have to employ scannable text, using:
- highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
- meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
- bulleted lists
- one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
- the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion.
- half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
Morkes and Nielsen found that credibility is important for Web users:
- It is unclear who is behind information on the Web and whether a page can be trusted.
- Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing and use of outbound hypertext links.
The authors also found that users detested "marketese"; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims ("hottest ever") that currently is prevalent on the Web:
- Web users are busy: they want to get the straight facts.
- Credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.
Measuring the Effect of Improved Web Writing
To measure the effect of some of the content guidelines, Morkes and Nielsen developed five versions of the same Web site with:
- same basic information.
- different wording, in forms they called concise, scannable, objective, a combination of all three, and a control.
- same site navigation
They then had users perform the same tasks with the different sites and measured such variables as task time to find answers in the text; errors in performing these tasks; recognition and recall of the text; and satisfaction.
- Reader results were dramatically higher for the concise version, 58 percent better over the hyped version.
- The results were 47 percent better for the scannable version.
- But the article showed 124 percent better usability when Nielsen and Morkes combined three ideas for improved writing style into a single site.
The authors were somewhat surprised that usability was improved by a good deal in the objective language version (27 percent better).
- They had expected that users would like this version better than the promotional site (as indeed they did).
- But they thought that the performance metrics would have been the same for both kinds of language
- As it turned out, their four performance measures (time, errors, memory and site structure) were also better for the objective version than for the promotional version.
- Their conjecture was that promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts "Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions," their first reaction is no, it's not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.
STUDY QUESTIONS FOR CHAPTER 6
- How is reading on the web different from reading a newspaper or magazine?
- What things can you do to make your web pages more scannable?
- When should you chunk your text, and when should you avoid chunking?
- The Web Style Guide authors and Jakob Nielsen both like the inverted pyramid writing style. Explain what it is and why it is useful for writing web pages.
- List three of George Orwell’s rules for writing. How do they relate to writing for web pages?
- Why should you place keywords at the beginning of headings and page titles? Where else should you use them?
- The Web Style Guide authors suggest that you not use italic tags <i></i> or bold tags <b></b>, especially not in place of heading tags. Explain why.
- How can embedded hyperlinks disrupt the flow of your page? What can you do to prevent this?
- In your own words, explain the paradox of control