10 top tips for truly user-centred content from Axiom copywriter Paul Johnson
Too many organisations apply old-fashioned print thinking to their intranets, as web guru Gerry McGovern reminds us in his latest blog post. The intranet is not a place busy employees come to look at hero shots or read a department’s promotional fluff. Instead, people want to get a task done – book a meeting room, complete a performance review, understand a policy – and get out of there as soon as possible to carry on with the day job.
That doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater though. We still need the craft of writing content that’s interesting, clear and brief. This has always been a given when we’re producing printed comms materials – and is something all too often lacking when non-communicators are let loose with the keys to the intranet CMS. Plus there are a few extra things we need to do when writing for the intranet to help users complete their tasks quickly and easily.
For a start, remember that people don’t read web pages like they do printed pages. Instead, they scan them, picking out individual words and, particularly, links. Research on how people read websites has found that four out of five users always scan any new page they came across. It has also found that reading from computer screens is, on average, 25 per cent slower than from paper.
So what do we need to do differently?
- Write half the amount (or less) than you would with conventional writing.
- Use headings and subheadings so readers can easily identify content they might be interested in. Make headings clear and informative, not clever.
- Write even shorter sentences than you ordinarily would. Aim for an average of 14-16 words.
- Cover one idea per paragraph. Web users often only read the first sentence – or even just the first few words – of a paragraph.
- Avoid long, uniform blocks of text; users will be discouraged from scanning when faced with such density. Break up your text into shorter paragraphs than you normally would.
- Use bulleted lists to relieve the user’s eye. Bullet points also have the advantage of bringing important points to a scanner’s attention.
- Think link! Your job is to enable the user to complete his/her task as quickly as possible so make links clear and self-explanatory.
- If you are writing a long piece of content (a web page or a document for on-screen reading), start with a contents list that allows people to jump to the content they’re interested in.
- Move detailed information to subpages.
- Always include a prominent call to action, such as a link or an invitation to contact someone by phone or email. Users must know where to go next to complete their task.
- Oh yes, and here’s a bonus tip – I just couldn’t cap it at 10… This one applies to any medium, but is especially useful for anyone not trained in business writing who’s asked to write for the intranet. Draft your text in Word first and make use of the built-in readability index. Aim for a Flesch Reading Ease score of more than 40. Anything less than 20 is screaming for a rewrite. (This post comes in at 66, by the way).