Writing for the Web2.0: Usability is still king

After I finished my BA in English lit I made a good part of my living writing interactive museum content, news stories for national media, and educational content for government websites. But much of what I learned about getting paid to create content didn’t come from my English literature degree but from online journalism principles I learned in the field, many of which are derived from Jacob Nielsen’s usability and other web style guides I had to follow for different news media (such as CBC’s internal style guide and the CP Style Guide). This also, and in no small part, included the help of highly skilled editors! Which reminds me: one major difference between professional writing and personal blogging is that the latter is not only paid for the time and effort required to produce high quality writing but rarely does so without the help of editors and producers. Last year, when I put all the basics of web writing together for my online writing class I realized the ‘rules for online writing haven’t changed all that much…

  • People still scan (rather than closely reading) the web
  • Web writing is chunked (rather than longform)
  • Good headlines are searchable, yet catchy (rather than clever or obscure)
  • Web readers are also web users (who like to interact)
  • Inverted pyramid still works!
  • Black text on a white/light background. Coloured text against a black or red page communicates a clear message: you put your own (bad) aesthetics before the needs of readers.

Of course, it also helps to spend as much time as you can writing – whether it’s your diary, blog, personal website, message board contributions or an online publications it’s all good practice. There’s certainly a lot more I could say here about integrating writing with other media elements, engaging user generated content and tagging but in the spirit of web usability, keep it short, and to the point. While today’s online communications are becoming increasingly multimodal, usability is still king when it comes to presenting engaging and accessible text-based content that people might actually enjoy reading!