Candlepower

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Web Usability and Copywriting: Making Your Visitors Feel at Home

A website is a strange beast — it is your reception area, your office, your shop, your brochure, your catalogue... And all without being able to walk into it, sit down in it, touch it. But just as you wouldn't want your customers to get lost on the way to a sales meeting in your offices, or to leave your shop in frustration because they can't find the goods they're looking for, so it is crucial that the visitors to your website can find their way around your website and get to where they want to go as easily as they can follow a sign, open a door, reach onto a shelf. The science of designing sites that work for visitors is known as usability.

Web usability has a range of different significances, depending on who you're talking to — for designers of e-commerce sites it relates to how effectively you can help visitors to buy, for engineers it is how effectively various interfaces work together - for us here it is how easily visitors can navigate around a site to find what they want, and how positively they respond to the contents of the site as shown through their actions to buy, to contact, to come back.

I am particularly grateful to Ian Graham's A Pattern Language for Web Usability, which, although no longer young in Internet terms (2003), is still a model of clarity, wit and common sense. The basic thrust of Graham's idea is that designers and developers (and here I would include copywriters) have a responsibility to create websites in which the visitor feels at ease, and where they can carry out their chosen actions and transactions straightforwardly and, ideally, more or less intuitively.  In terms of website design this means always having a Home button in the top left-hand corner of the screen, providing a top menu bar or side menus to the left of the screen, clear signaling of internal navigation links, and so on — sticking to design and architectural conventions which enable swift understanding of each page and seamless movement about the site.

What, though, does usability mean in terms of copywriting? Partly it is a question simply of employing the language which will be appropriate for the visitor — if you are selling faucets on-line you want to use direct, accessible language to enable the visitor to find the product they're looking for and purchase it with the minimum of fuss. That much is simply good copywriting, whether for web or print. Where writing for websites in particular, and electronic media in general, differs, though, is in the application of an understanding of how people read on screen, and how to make it easy for them to read comfortably.

When reading print, the competent reader tends to scan down the middle of the page, 'chunking' phrases — very few skilled adult readers read word by word. On screen, however, eye-tracking studies have shown that readers have a tendency to relate to text in a very different way. Essentially, the eyes tend to go first to the upper left of the page and to hover in that general area before dotting around to the right, back to the left and then jumping around over the page as a whole. In order, then, to provide readers with the information they need (or the messages we wish them to receive), copy needs to be presented in 'bite-sized' chunks, with the most important message, or the statement or question designed to draw them in, towards the top left of the page. Short paragraphs, boxes, bullet points, all help the reader to 'get' what you're saying easily and with the minimum of effort. That way, they can move through the words to the actions you want them to take without tripping over the furniture.


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Sarah Williams is founder and managing director of the international copywriting company Wordsmith, based in Oxfordshire, UK. She taught in universities, and then moved out of the academic world into book publishing, running the English office of the biggest French children's book publisher. During this time she wrote and published a number of children's books. She eventually became a full time freelance writer, and has published over 80 books. About five years ago, Sarah set up Wordsmith, a copywriting company providing intelligent, responsive answers to marketing needs. Click here to read more articles by Sarah Williams.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 2nd 2008, 12:55 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Absolutely on point. The zigzag pattern of eye scanning is key to understanding usability, as is getting someone totally unfamiliar with the content or topic to test your site. What seems obvious to you and your circle of co-workers or friends might be inscrutable to many new to the concepts.

You also don't want key content to be multiple clicks away from your home page. Lastly, the home page should convey the high-level executive summary of what your site is all about (we sell fabulous high-performance kites, for example).
Wednesday July 2nd 2008, 3:19 PM
Comment by: cecelia O.
I've been writing for websites for the last 4 years and have recently begun consulting as an "Information Designer," which is what my company calls a usability expert.

I thought this article was excellent and highlights something I've repeatedly told our clients - a webpage is very much like a museum exhibit in that users are grazing information. They're not interacting with the information in the classic classroom method of reading from top to bottom, like a good student. They're free to get what they need and then get out. Keeping their interest and their continued engagement takes an understanding of how users interact with the page.

I'd love to see more discussions on this topic!
Wednesday July 2nd 2008, 7:56 PM
Comment by: William R.
Thanks for a timely discussion. My writing work for the summer engages me with PowerPoint presentations structured as self-paced training modules. The intended "reader" will be studying the topic for the first time or will be reviewing a process that she/he hasn't used for awhile. The subjects of instruction can be quite complex, showing the learner how to use databases and navigate multiple screens to complete assignments.

The learner needs a clear path to pick out the essentials of the process or to quickly reach for the one bit of process that had become unclear over time. The writing assignment requires extensive use of the hyperlink feature of PowerPoint. Your points about beginning the visual journey in the upper left and building clear options to explore are well taken.
Monday August 18th 2008, 3:54 AM
Comment by: Mary M. (Williamsburg, VA)
The importance of the top right position in a page is a very good point for an audience of native speakers of languages written in Latin or Cyrillic script from left to right. Someone designing for an more international audience would have to question this.

It seems unlikely that this top right position would hold the same importance for native speakers of languages written in scripts that run in other directions. These languagues could be Arabic and Hebrew written from right to left or ideographic languages such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean that can be read left to right, top to bottom, or right to left.

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