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Online, Consistency Is Crucial

  |  February 20, 2001   |  Comments

Is consistency the hobgoblin of little minds? No, it's only the foolish kind that is (or so said Emerson). Kathy's talking about the other consistency, the smart kind.

Over the years, consistency has taken a beating from several famous writers, at least one famous composer, and a multitude of English teachers.

Oscar Wilde called it "the last refuge of the unimaginative."

"Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life," said Aldous Huxley. "The only completely consistent people are dead."

John Cage said, "As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency."

Mark Twain once gave an entire speech blasting consistency.

"Consistency is a virtue for trains," said Hungarian novelist Stephen Vizinczey.

But it was probably Ralph Waldo Emerson who contributed most to the soiling of consistency's reputation when he said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

English teachers do their part, too. Many teach students to avoid repetition at all costs. If you have to use a word twice, they say, don't. Find a synonym.

So students learn to use different words to express the same thing.

Is consistency the last refuge of the unimaginative? Contrary to life? A virtue only for trains? When is consistency a foolish consistency?

The answer to all these questions is "Not online."

Online, users need to find their way and accomplish their tasks quickly -- without, as Steve Krug would say, being forced to think.

Online, consistency is crucial.

Consistency in Online Technical Writing

Consistency is especially crucial in instructional writing, such as help text, procedures, and demos. How can users follow a procedure if the terminology changes, if you call something a screen one time and a window the next? It's not the user's job to figure out what you mean. It's your job to make it obvious.

What happens when you choose a word because it's consistent with industry usage, but the word has more than one meaning and some of your readers are in industries in which the word means something else? In that case, you must provide enough context to make the meaning clear.

I failed to do that in the title of my last article, a reader informed me.

"I wanted to alert you that you are misusing the word 'scan,'" wrote Lani Kai Akers, "and I ended up reading a different article than I was expecting. 'Scan' means to examine point by point, in great detail (as a Scan-tron form -- the computer examines every answer for correctness). The word you wanted was 'skim,' which means to read superficially and rapidly."

What I told her was this: I'd thought about using the word "skim" but had settled on "scan" for three reasons:

  1. "Scan" is the word Jakob Nielsen uses.

  2. The second and third definitions of "scan" in The American Heritage Dictionary are, respectively, "to look over quickly and systematically" and "to look over or leaf through hastily."

  3. The meaning of "skim" Lani was referring to is the fourth meaning in The American Heritage.

But that's not the point. The point is that the title was misleading to at least one reader and most likely to others. Titles should never be misleading, especially online. I should have provided enough context to make the meaning clear or not used the word.

Ways to Strive for Consistency

  • When referring to the same concept or object, use the same word. I recently bought a Palm VIIx. The instructions sometimes use "stylus" and sometimes "pen" to refer to the little stick I use to navigate.

  • If you use a word once to mean one thing, avoid using it again to mean something else. For instance, on a business-to-business (B2B) site, don't use "customer" in one place to refer to the client and in another to refer to the consumer.

  • In headings and bullet points keep syntax consistent, but not at the expense of clarity. Consider these two adjacent headings in a privacy policy:

    "Keeping your personal information secure"
    "Updating your information"

    The parallel syntax leads users to believe that the subject of the gerund in both headings is the same. But in the first, the subject is the company; in the second, the customer. This could be misleading to anyone scanning (skimming) the text.

  • Use terminology consistent with industry standards. Don't call your search button "Find" if the standard is "Search."

  • Proofread for consistency, not just for typos, inaccuracies, and misspellings. (Proofreading will be the subject of my next article.)

Consistency is also important in site architecture, design, and navigation. But I'll address that another time.

Consistency is not just for trains and dead people. Strive for it in your writing.

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Kathy Henning Kathy Henning is managing editor of CommunicationFitness, a Web site for learning and teaching more effective communication skills. A writer and editor for 20 years, since 1997 she has focused primarily on the Web, and during that time has written and edited copy for nearly 40 sites. She also teaches writing and editing, and has an MA in English. Prior to her Web days she spent eight years as an editor at a law firm and two years as a magazine editor.

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