What is the Future of Text Online?
Web-usability expert Jakob Nielsen has said for more than a decade that writing for the Web is different than writing for print. Nielsen has promoted the use of the inverted pyramid, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, subheadings, and hypertext. Even though some of these guidelines conform with traditional journalistic teachings, not all journalists know about them or use them on the Internet -- and some reject them entirely.
But on the Web, 10 years is an eternity. And new questions have arisen. With the growing prevalence of audio and video online, what is the future of text? Will the guidelines for online writing change when screen resolution improves? Will the inverted pyramid kill creative storytelling?
I posed these questions -- and several others -- to Nielsen in an e-mail interview that was to be included in "How to Write for the Web," a 300-page handbook that I plan to publish online in the next few weeks. This document, which has been written in Spanish, will be available for free at eltiempo.com, the leading Web site in Colombia. It offers a balance of theory, research and real-world examples.
In 2000, Nielsen said in his book, "Designing Web Usability," that "content is the focus of the users' attention; it is the reason they go online in the first place, and it is the first thing they look at when they load a new page."
Obviously, he was talking about text. Poynter's EyeTrack research has shown that online readers favor text -- both in order viewed and in overall time spent viewing. With faster Internet connections available, do you think this statement remains true? Or are video and audio going to be the new focus of users' attention?
Video and audio are tempting media because often designers feel that they can get their message across better with moving pictures or narration. However, it is still very difficult to search either content type, which means that text is still the primary medium if you care about content retrieval. In a business setting, we still see users being very annoyed by audio -- especially unannounced audio -- and frustrated when video content does not allow them to "scan" to the part of the message they care most about. In this respect, "richer" media can actually be "poorer" than text, because they are essentially linear, synchronous formats. Text on the other hand can be scanned, chopped, summarized and repurposed (and translated, formatted, hyperlinked and transmitted) far more easily than video and audio content.
That is not to say that video and audio are inherently bad. Both content types can be instructional, and both can be used as entertainment. We are only just beginning to see the Internet embrace and transform these forms of content, which were traditionally broadcast by TV and radio. It will take some time for these media to reach the level of online integration that text currently has. It is more likely that they will augment rather than replace the need for text.
Video and audio may become dominant on certain devices. It is difficult to use a mobile phone to read news articles, but quite easy to use it as a tiny TV screen. Reading while driving is dangerous, but podcasts can keep you updated with your favorite information. At the moment, however, it is still beyond most users' capabilities to make these scenarios work for them. In our studies, even teens -- typically seen as early adopters -- were often confused by the steps required to get content to play on their PCs, let alone transferring that content to other devices.
Nielsen's book also said that screen readability problems will be solved in the future because screens with resolution of 300 dpi will have been invented. That would make a screen as easy to read as a newspaper. Will your guidelines for online writing still apply when screen resolution is improved?
There is a difference between display and content. Making text easier to read on a display is just part of the problem. The larger and more complex issue is deciding what to write in the first place. Good writing techniques will never go out of fashion. In fact, even print publications can benefit from the same guidelines we suggest for creating Web content.
We suggest that writers:
- Use the inverted pyramid. Start with the conclusion.
- Write abstracts or summaries for longer content.
- Tell readers what questions they can expect an article to answer.
- Make small chunks of content with one or two ideas in each chunk.
- Group content that is similar.
- Write unique titles, headings and subheadings.
- Make lists, not paragraphs. Bulleted lists and white space can break up text.
Interestingly, although there are some very high-resolution displays commercially available (especially on Tablet PCs), the original prediction of 300 dpi being common by 2007 does not seem to have come about. The technology exists, but it just isn't being exploited yet. Additionally, until computers are produced in a form that makes them as suitable as paper for reading in multiple environments, paper will still be a major factor.
In one of Nielsen's "Alertbox" columns, he discussed "Misconceptions About Usability." One of those misconceptions is that "usability kills creativity." In many newsrooms around the world, journalists say your guidelines -- particularly those encouraging the use of the inverted pyramid -- kill creativity. Do you have any answers for these journalists? Do you think newspapers should use the inverted pyramid in their homepages, but use other forms on the inner pages of their Web sites?
There are many forms of story, and many ways to tell those stories. I would be upset if my favorite novelist chose to use the inverted pyramid style of writing for every book. To give away the ending in the first paragraph is most often not the point of such literature. If I was curled up in my favorite chair on a Sunday morning with the weekend newspaper, I would expect to find some longer, editorial articles that took their time to make their point, weaving in new themes and data as they went. However, when sitting at my computer wanting to quickly scan the top stories, I appreciate brevity and concise writing.
But let's move away from personal preference and toward the data we collect from our usability studies. We find that when users are task oriented -- when they are trying to find information or solve a problem -- almost 80 percent of them scan the page for relevant information. Many of the guidelines that we suggest are aimed toward fulfilling these users' needs. Users will only read the whole text when they are highly motivated to get extended information.
Reading for pleasure or entertainment is obviously a different activity. However, I would ask journalists whether they feel that their Web sites are currently used for this purpose. Our research suggests otherwise. I would also ask journalists whether they prefer to copy their print text to the Web because they feel that it is their best work, or because they do not feel sufficiently creative to rewrite it for their online audience, which brings a completely different set of expectations to the article.
Your basic theory about Internet writing -- the inverted pyramid works best -- comes from the journalism world. Some say that world -- one which often publishes long, unbroken blocks of text that can't be scanned and fails to use hyperlinks to split long documents into multiple pages -- doesn't present the best example of usability. What do newspaper and other news Web sites need to do to improve their usability?
Our basic theory about how to write for the Internet comes from research into how users read online. Our recommendations, developed from this research, are often the same as those made in the journalism world. We have found that solid journalistic skills often translate well into legible online content. Of course, not all journalists are good journalists, and even the good journalists may not have control over how their work is laid out online. Those good journalists may write very differently if they consider their primary audience to be made up of Web surfers rather than newspaper subscribers.
What we find consistently is that any writing technique that provides signposts to readers is likely to aid in comprehension. These signposts may be summaries, titles, bold or linked text, lists, or one of many other tools that are taught to journalists. The same rules apply to other Web content such as encyclopedia articles or product descriptions. Typically the user's goal is the same in every case. Find the relevant block of text, and then find the required information within this block. Content creators must avoid the vain notion that Web site visitors care about eloquent prose. Visitors are goal oriented, so they care much more about the ease with which they can extract information from the page. While this may not initially seem very "sexy" to aspiring writers, the difference between poor and good Web writing is so great that it can often be the factor that distinguishes a good site from a bad one.
Research shows that users often read Web pages in an f-shaped pattern -- two sweeps across the page followed by one down the left side of it. Would you recommend that designers of newspaper Web sites, to use Nielsen's words, "place important content in a single main column, so users don't have to scan the page and pick out design elements in a two-dimensional layout"? Most newspapers' Web sites spread content across the page, an arrangement that does not necessarily ascribe to an f-shaped viewing pattern.
Many newspapers' Web sites place homepage content in chunks across the page. However, they typically do not do this on article pages. On their home pages, the multi-column approach can work if the headings for each section can be scanned separately from the content. This has the effect of turning the headings into a list, but it still takes more effort to scan this list than reading down a single column. You may notice that several news Web sites are moving toward a single-story-plus-links model -- see cnn.com for an example. There the homepage leads with a single story and provides links to other stories that then appear on their own pages.
Ultimately, usability must be factored into a design alongside other considerations such as advertising revenue and business philosophy, among other things. However, users will only tolerate a certain degradation in usability before they look elsewhere for their content. It makes good business sense to test both homepages and internal pages for readability in order to optimize comprehension and help determine the final design.