Just Say No to Dead Fragments

A dead fragment of text is what’s left after a usability expert has had his or her way with some perfectly good copy.

The process works a little like this… First, take some great text that engages the reader on a number of levels. Here are a few words from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Now cut that back to make it more “usable”:

“Have sons judged by character and not color.”

What are you left with? A brief, but dead, fragment. The substance of the communication remains, but the soul has been ripped out of it.

Or take this great piece of text from a sign on the beach in Monterey, CA:

“So that others may enjoy our fragile tidepools and kelp forests, please take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

Let’s make that a little more usable for the Web:

“Don’t litter. Don’t take anything.”

Another dead fragment.

You get the idea. The trouble with dead fragments is that online they are the norm, not the exception. The Web is littered with dead fragments.

E-commerce sites are built on dead fragments. Yes, they are easy to read. Yes, they help move the user from one point to another as quickly as possible. Yes, they address the issue of text being hard to read on a monitor. But no, they are not the answer if you want to differentiate your business, build sales, and increase loyalty among your customers. Dead fragments are one thing only: They’re dead.

The use of these sterile little snippets of text remind me of a great comedy routine that will be remembered only by those Brits who were in the habit of watching “The Two Ronnies” on TV some 20 years ago. Ronnie Barker pointed to a map of the U.K. and said something along the lines of, “The Ministry of Transportation has announced that the system of highway bypasses around the towns and cities of England is now complete. So you can now travel from one end of the country to the other without getting anywhere.”

It’s the same with dead fragments.

It’s the words that engage people online, not pictures or animation or voice-overs. Ask a few hundred million users who write emails, chat with instant messaging, and post to discussion lists.

Online, people engage one another with words. But when you suck the life out of those words for the sake of brevity and “usability,” you’re simply enabling users to “travel from one end of your site to another without getting anywhere.”

If you really want to build more sales and loyalty at your site, look for those points at which a little more text, well written, could actually engage and retain the attention and emotions of the reader. Make them feel better about your business, make them want to read more, make them want to come back.

In short, say no to dead fragments.

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