Q&A with Chris Nodder: Writing for the web

source: http://www.netimperative.com/news/2008/june/2/q-a-with-chris-nodder-writing-for-the-web

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Added:Jun 06, 2008

How does writing for the web differ from other media? Last week, Netimperative spoke with Chris Nodder, User Experience Specialist at Nielsen Norman Group, about common pitfalls to avoid when producing content online.

What are the main differences between writing for print and writing online?

People are looking to find information online, it’s not like a novel where they read the content from beginning to end. It’s all about getting useful information fast. Our site data analysis indicates that on average, a person reads only 20%- 28% of a webpage.

Our eye tracking studies show that users will scan the page until they get to content which they feel meets their needs. Then (and only then) will they start reading in detail. Because of this, I always tell my clients to ‘suppress their ego’ when writing online- many people use big words just to prove they can, but this can turn away readers. It’s not a case of dumbing down content- it’s about writing for people in a hurry.

We have found that users spend very little time on individual pages. For instance, in a newsletter study we found that even for newsletters that users chose to read rather than junk, they still spent on average only 51 seconds reading the newsletter.

When writing for the Web, you are writing for people who are essentially scanning for information first and foremost, so you need to think about how you are presenting your information. This can mean tried and trusted journalism practices, such as front-loading your text with the most important information. I would also recommend using bullets points where applicable. Although this is frowned upon in some circles, people love to read them online. It makes the information far easier to digest.

Are there any areas that are commonly overlooked when creating Web content?

Links always show up as bold blue words on the screen- they instantly draw the eye. This factor is often neglected and useless phrases, such as ‘click here’ become the focal point of the page. Instead, writers should pick the most interesting word in the text to insert the relevant link.

Another overlooked factor is images. Many corporate websites feature bland images of smiling people that convey nothing about the company’s products or services. This is a big misuse of space- the images should add to the information on the page. For example, a medical company we worked with included an image of people using the equipment it sold- helping to demonstrate the large size of the product. This is a vital piece of information that the reader will be grateful to have.

What are the best ways of measuring usability?

In terms of qualitative metrics, we tend to use surveys measuring users’ satisfaction. This can be unreliable as the users tend to be over-generous in their ratings, so you can’t always trust survey results to be honest representations of how people feel – what they say and what they do are often two different things.

In terms of qualitative metrics, the best measurement is time spent performing a task. You can also measure the number of errors made during a series of tasks. However, I would recommend putting the final measurements in terms of ‘cost’ by translating time lost into potential sales lost- it gives you a way to set more actionable goals.

What typical barriers do you encounter when encouraging getting clients to implement changes to their website?

Too often we find companies are making guesses concerning what their readers actually want. The hardest part is convincing a company to research their own readership, as this can be time consuming and labour intensive.

As technologies converge across TV, online and mobile, what does the future hold for usability. Do emerging platforms present new challenges?

There are many new platforms and user interfaces out there, and this number is growing. But essentially it will be the same thing all over again. Whether is via mobile or digital TV, the same basic usability principles will apply.

About Chris Nodder, User Experience Specialist, NN/g –

Chris works with clients across Europe and the US, and has coauthored NN/g reports on B2B usability and wishlists and gift giving. He has also conducted focus groups, user studies, and field research.

Before joining NN/g, Nodder worked as a usability consultant at NatWest Bank in the UK, and then as a senior user researcher at Microsoft Corp. His experiences managing the usability group at NatWest are captured in the book The Politics of Usability. During his seven years at Microsoft, Nodder was responsible for many products, including the user experience for XP Service Pack 2, a major upgrade to Windows XP (documented in the book Security and Usability).

This summer, Chris is running a full day tutorial entitled Writing for the Web in San Francisco and Melbourne.