The study of how people interact with websites has several branches. The inventor of one branch, called “usability,” is Jacob Nielsen. I’ve been reading his column since the mid-nineties.
In general, his advice is the same as any first-year journalism class, only intensified for the internet attention-span.
To condense more than a dozen years of research into a checklist, here’s the Nielsen guide to improving your digital writing:
- Headlines are everything — you’ve got two words to sell it
- Be direct and simple — users scan for “information scent”
- Keep it short — a percentage of readers click away after every paragraph.
- Be actionable — online readers are looking for answers, not anecdotes
- Write scannable copy — use subheads to emphasize your keywords and concepts. Break up your articles into digestible chunks
- Be objective — readers want facts and credible sources.
- Use lots of links — don’t describe if you can illustrate
Here’s an old but great analysis of the BBC’s headlines.Nielsen explains why he loves them:
- short (because people don’t read much online);
- rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the target article;
- front-loaded with the most important keywords (because users often scan only the beginning of list items);
- understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results); and
- predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click (because people don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver).
And here are his examples:
On a recent visit, the BBC list of headlines for “other top stories” read as follows:
* Italy buries first quake victims
* Romania blamed over Moldova riots
* Ten arrested in UK anti-terrorism raids
* Villagers hurt in West Bank clash
* Mass Thai protest over leadership
* Iran accuses journalist of spying
Around the world in 38 words.