Monday 25 March 2013

Six unwelcome words and phrases

Welcome mat

Every pixel of your website is precious. But we often waste space with filler words and phrases that make our sites look tired and don't help our users.

The words I'm shooing off my pages are:

1. Welcome

There's nothing more cheesy than a 'Welcome to my website' message.

It's old-fashioned and naff.

Instead of: 

Welcome to the Members’ area
Make your heading: 
Members’ area

2. Note

'Note' is a waste of space when used as a heading or in bold at the beginning of a paragraph. Readers scanning the page will only see the word note and will miss the subject of your Note. 
Note: cheques should be made payable to the Fund of Elizabeth.
Cheques should be made payable to the Fund of Elizabeth. 
This also applies to NB.

3. Please (excessively and ungrammatically) 

Be polite but don’t tie yourself in knots. Give straightforward, direct instructions.
Readers are reminded to please take their bags with them. 
Can quite easily become:
Please take your bags with you.
It also makes you sound desperate if you have to plead with your users:
Please download the booking form.
Instead, make the first word the instruction. You'll also be front-loading the action keyword and making your text easier to scan:
Download the booking form.

4. Thank you

Say thank you when someone has actually done something. For example, after a web form has been submitted, a thank you message can confirm that they have completed the task, and can tell them what will happen next.

But there’s no need to thank people just for coming to your website:

Thank you for visiting the organisational intranet. We hope you find it useful.
Use the space to highlight some top tasks or features that the user might be looking for. They have come to your site to do or know something, not to read inanities.

5. On this website you will find...

If your content and navigation is any good, you can drop this phrase.

Instead of:

On this website you can find out about the role of dental nurses, get information on how to train, and the career options available.
Get your teeth into some decent menu headings and links:
  • What dental nurses do
  • Training
  • Careers
Don’t waste your homepage repeating the menu links. Highlight something fun or useful instead. 

6. Coming soon

Never load a blank page and say that the content is on its way.

What a horrible disappointment for your user. And when is soon, anyhow? 

Strip out the wasted words

All these phrases and words are really easy to fall back on - like FAQs - when you are in a rush or can't be bothered to have a fight with a content author. But they're all unhelpful bits of padding. Let's show them the door.

Thursday 21 March 2013

The question I’m most frequently asked

What is it? An FAQ
In some circles I have a reputation for hating FAQs (frequently asked questions). This is why.

FAQs often creep in because people are too lazy to write proper web pages or are too scared to say no when departments say they want them. HR and IT people are particularly fond of them.

And there’s no need. They are easily re-written. Just change the questions to headings.

e.g. “How do I book a course?” becomes “Book a course”. 

FAQs are bad for many, many reasons. Some of the main ones are:

  • They don’t front-load the keywords that you want people to see – your eye is drawn to the What, Why and How in the question, rather than the important words (e.g. in the above example, you want people to see the word “Book”). People scan rather than reading every word online, and this format doesn’t help them find the information they want quickly.
  • They are often repetitive. The same answer is given to multiple questions.
    e.g. “How do I do thing x ? Contact person y. 
    How do I do thing z? Contact person y."
    Instead, just have a clear heading at the top or bottom – “Contacts”.
  • They create grammatical headaches. Should it be “How do I…” or “How do you…” ? They are hard to write well, and also hard to read, because the user is distracted, thinking about what is meant by “I” and “you”.
  • They don’t lend themselves to a logical layout. Due to the endemic laziness of the format, you often find them listed by date issued, rather than grouped together by subject. There may also be multiple answers to the same questions, issued on different dates. It is better to have a simple heading and the correct, current, information under it.
  • There are lots of extra words when you try to write in Q&A format. But online, less is more. People won’t read long sentences and paragraphs online. Be less chatty and more direct.
  • They often end up as a single, very long page – again, really hard to read. Better to break the information into logical sections and multiple pages.
  • FAQs aren’t good for SEO (search engine optimisation) either. There is unlikely to be a good summary of the content at the top of the page if the key information is scattered throughout a number of answers.
  • They’re old-fashioned. This doesn't reflect well on the rest of your website.

The general rule is that if you need FAQs, the rest of your content is structured badly. I grinned when the lady running my recent GDS style training said something similar. It's worth noting that FAQs are banned on and these guys base their style guide not only on theoretical best practice, but on user feedback and testing.

What have I missed?