Writers Unite: Stand Up to Usability Experts

As one reader said to me in an email a few days ago, “If one more person waggles Jakob Nielsen under my nose, I’ll head-butt ’em.”

Why would someone who seems otherwise peaceable be driven to violence by Jakob Nielsen? Because of something Nielsen wrote back in 1997 titled “How Users Read on the Web.”

This is one of a small number of Alertbox articles on the subject of writing for the Web, but it is probably the one most frequently waggled under writers’ noses. Here’s how the waggle goes…

“Hey, stupid writer person, read Jakob Nielsen’s article. People don’t read on the Web. They scan it. They don’t read promotional language, and everything has to be broken into little snippets. Jakob says so.”

Well, almost four years later, it’s time to take issue with some points in that article.

The meat of the article revolves around the following block of text:

“Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).”

Five different versions of this text were created. The one above was the original, and the final version had everything broken down into short bullet points. Breaking that original into simple bullets, with no promotional language included, increased usability by 124 percent. This result was, apparently, “truly stellar.”

Not really.

The original block of text was terribly written in the first place. It was a laundry list of facts and figures masquerading as a sentence.

Right from the outset that text should have been written as a bulleted list. Never mind the Web. Whether shown on a Web site, in a magazine, or on the back of a cereal box, that block of nonsense would have done a better job by being shown for what it was — a list.

The 124 percent improvement wasn’t about the Web; it was about improving a bad piece of writing.

Unfortunately, because Mr. Nielsen is so highly respected and widely read — and deservedly so — nobody has bothered to ever question this article. Well, it’s time to do so.

Four Points on Usability and Web Copy

First point: That article does not prove that everything on your site should be broken down into nonpromotional bullet points. It proves only that a laundry list written as a sentence will be better understood when shown as the laundry list it should have been in the first place.

Second point: If you don’t believe that people really do read copy online, go to nOrh and SiteSell. You may laugh and scoff at both sites. But they are both hugely successful and extremely profitable. People read what they want to read, not what usability experts think they will read.

Third point: The length and style of your copy should not be determined by an article written almost four years ago; it should be determined by the needs of users on your site today.

Let’s say you’re selling cell phones. On your home page, show some model names and thumbnails. Users need help finding what they want, so just use bullets at this stage, no descriptions.

Then click on a thumbnail, and go to the next page. There’s a big picture of a phone plus enough copy to make and close the sale. At this point, users don’t need some naked bullet points; they need descriptions and benefits. In this environment, they can’t touch the phone, pick it up, or feel its weight in their hands.

You need to paint a picture and use as many words as it takes. Tackle the important stuff first, and the details later — first the benefits, then the supporting facts. People will read as much as they need to read, the first 30 words, the first 60, the first 100.

Fourth point: In case you haven’t noticed, the commercial Web that was brought to us by the venture capital guys, the information technology guys, the usability guys, and the design guys didn’t work worth a damn.

So, the next time you get waggled, bring on that head-butt. Because a successful future for online commerce depends on our being open to taking new approaches, including paying much closer attention to the power of words.

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