Tim Fidgeon

Writing for the web – Signpost guidelines

Web content should be written with signposts that clearly communicate what issue is being covered. Signposts must be visually noticeable, make sense out of context and communicate their message as clearly and directly as possible.

User behaviour – effect on web writing

The most important thing to realise when writing for the web is that most people don’t read web pages, they scan them. Heart-breaking as it might be for people who write for the web, research has repeatedly shown that users typically glance at a page to quickly ‘get the gist’ of it and then (if you are lucky) concentrate their attention on a specific area that’s relevant to their goals. This behaviour is typically known as ‘scanning’.

Consequences – writing for the web

The predominance of users’ scanning behaviour means that when we write for the web, we need to make sure that we write pages that can be scanned as efficiently and effectively as possible. This means that we need to be able to write web content that does not demand to be read. Instead, we must realise that good practice in writing for the web is to write web content that supports ‘scanning’.

In order to achieve good results when writing for the web, it helps to understand why people behave this way. There are two main reasons that users scan:

  • Ergonomics
    The resolution of a screen display is not as good as the printed page, so users’ eyes need to work harder in order to read it. In addition, screens shine light into users’ eyes. Both of these factors mean that reading from a screen can easily cause headaches and eyestrain. Because of this, many of the best practices in writing for the web involve minimising the amount of content a user has to read.
  • Cultural
    If you watch someone surfing the Internet, they will typically lean forward towards the screen. This is illustrative of the more agitated, interactive state of mind people usually have when using the Internet (compared, for example, to their more passive consumption of books and Television). This state of mind makes most users less likely to calmly read a web page’s content and more likely to scan it.

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The factors mentioned above help explain why so many people do not read web pages, but instead choose to quickly pass their eyes over them in an attempt to ‘get the gist’. Almost all of the most important techniques we use in writing for the web are designed to cope with this user behaviour.

Signposts – writing for the web guidelines

‘Signposting’ is a web writing technique that uses a keyphrase to clearly communicate which issue a web page is currently focusing on. This is one of the most effective techniques when writing for the web, because it helps users to easily identify and locate the topics covered on a page. There are two main considerations when using signposts for writing for the web:

  • Signal strength
    In order to be effective, the keyphrase must stand out on the page. This means that it should usually be a heading, emboldened bulleted list item or a bold phrase within a paragraph.
  • Choice of words
    The keyphrase must make sense out of context – because if it stands out on the page, this is how it is likely to be read. The signpost should aim to communicate the relevant issue as clearly and directly as possible.

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If you look at the way this article has been written, for example, you will hopefully be able to clearly identify our use of the ‘signposting’ writing for the web technique. All of the headings and bold phrases on this page should – according to writing for the web best practice – be meaningful and informative (and we hope they are!).

Summary – signposts in writing for the web

Signposts are a web writing technique which support users quickly glancing at a web page in order to ‘get the gist’ of it. They use a keyphrase to clearly communicate which issue the content is focusing on. It’s critical that signposts are visually noticeable, make sense out of context and communicate their message as clearly and directly as possible.

This article was written by usability and online copywriting expert Tim Fidgeon, who works with Spotless Interactive – a leading usability consultancy. Spotless Interactive are experts in all areas of writing for the web

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