Writing on the web

The Code Rascals are hard at work analyzing and summarizing our first round of usability testing of LibGuides. As we observe participants looking at our guide content, I’m reminded of a webinar I watched last fall called Web Writing with the User in Mind, hosted by Florida Library Webinars. The presenter, Rebecca Blakiston, UX Librarian at Arizona State Libraries, discusses ways that we can create a better user experience by writing better content for our sites. Blakiston begins with premise that people come to websites for content and to perform tasks. At the core of the presentation are 10 writing tips that we can use make it easier on users to complete tasks and find the content they need. The examples she provides refer mostly to content on library websites, but many of the principles can also be applied to our Research Guides. I’ll recap a few highlights here, but if you’re interested you can view her full slide deck.

Tips for Writing on the Web from Web Writing with the User in Mind

  1. Know how users read on the web. Deep reading is rare and visitors are likely to scan to find content that’s relevant. Users also tend to focus their eyes on the left side of the screen, skimming down, but staying toward the top of the page.
  2. Know your users. Use analytics data and talk to your users to better understand what they need need.
  3. Simplify your text. Use no more than 25 words per sentence, use active voice, and avoid adverbs for stronger sentences. Fragments and shorter paragraphs can help users scan your content quickly.
  4. Be Human. Use a conversational tone as if you were talking to the user at the reference desk. Write like you talk. Test by reading your text aloud to see how it sounds. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo library’s website is a good example of a conversational, but not overly casual, tone.

Thinking back to LibGuides, our guide text, including database and link descriptions, impact how users interact with our guides. One place we may do well to write more succinctly and intentionally is in our database descriptions. In our usability test, we observed that participants do read database descriptions (some more deeply than others) when selecting a database, signaling to us that we need to be thoughtful about what goes into the descriptions. We should customize database and link descriptions to the guide’s purpose and include details that tell the user how to use a specific resource or why it might benefit them. With course guides, for example, we can use language from course assignments to craft custom database descriptions that connect resources to specific course themes or assignments. In my Meaning of Madness:SPSY 0828 guide, I’ve included language from course assignments in my box titles, and I’ve attempted to keep my database descriptions short and related to the assignments. Writing custom descriptions also forces us to be more cognizant of which resources we’re presenting to users.

If you do add a custom database description, remember to set the description to “Display beneath item title” rather than hover, so that the user can see the description!

We’ll have another post later in the semester summarizing our findings alongside discussions of other best practices.

More on writing for the web from Usability.gov.