Writing for the Web – Highlights from the Nielsen Norman Group Conference

Last week I spent 2 days in a class called “Writing for the Web,” put on by the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). They are usability experts on all aspects of the web experience, from accessibility to visual design to content. I wanted their take on how web writing fits in to the overall scheme of effective website design. Here are a few highlights.


Reading on the web really is different from print. NNG’s research and eye-tracking studies show that people who read online find it:

  • Harder
  • Slower
  • Less effective in terms of comprehending what they read

The NNG instructor used the term “information foraging” to describe how people read online. To attract and keep the hurried web reader, web writing has to be shorter, simpler and clearer.

Written content is key. Despite what your graphic designer might tell you (and I love the ones I work with), it’s the words on the page that have the most impact on users – not color, not format, not layout. Not blinking boxes or popups or videos. Words are the quickest, simplest way to communicate clearly with users. And they are by far the most effective element on a website for building trust and credibility.

Clarity beats cleverness. People are very task-oriented on the web. They want to conserve their mental energy. So encountering your newly-coined term, inside joke, or cultural reference is more likely to make them click away. If your meaning is unclear, they won’t stay to figure it out.

Surprises (to me)

People don’t mind scrolling. Previously, I thought it was best to avoid creating pages where users had to scroll. According to NNG’s research, clicking around is more disruptive to people’s web experience than scrolling down a long page. That’s why we take these classes!

Simpler writing helps everyone. I was stunned to learn that 43% of people in the US read at a lower level of literacy. Meaning they read more slowly than average and have more difficulty understanding what they read.

Simpler writing – meaning fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word – benefits everyone. Reading speed and comprehension increase enormously, even for high literacy readers. When you consider the time saved, and the greater satisfaction people feel when they can understand and make decisions more easily, it’s a no-brainer to take the time to simplify your copy.

MS Word has a grade level indicator. As in, “this copy is written at a 6th grade reading level.” Who knew? Probably you did. But if you want to achieve a target grade level for your audience, this is ONE data point that shows how close your copy comes. I now have this feature turned on in my copy of Word 2010.

Thumbs-up for the Yahoo Style Guide. NNG confirms that this is a good style guide to use on the web. It’s a guide – not the gospel – and NNG is quick to point out that part of a web writer’s job is to exercise judgment in applying any style guide.

Bottom line: Pardon the cliche but, “It’s the content, stupid.” No matter what neat, new technology comes along, it’s still the words that matter most to your audience. So take a bow, all you web writers and editors. Your ability to find those few, right words that resonate with your audience and compel them to act is a skill and an art to be proud of.


7 thoughts on “Writing for the Web – Highlights from the Nielsen Norman Group Conference

  1. Thanks for this synopsis. There were definitely some validators (scrolling vs clicking) and a few gems…like the tip on MS Word’s grade level indicator. Who knew?! So glad I found this blog 🙂

  2. Interesting and good advice. I recently went to a talk by Google and the upshot was broadly the same, in that the quality of content is the most important thing. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle on the Web | Web Editors

  4. Pingback: Multiscreen; writing for the web | University of St Andrews Web team

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