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How to Design Content for Online Use

How to Design Content for Online Use

Write for how your SharePoint or intranet users read

I frequently find my client organizations post content originally drafted for print on their intranets.

However, reading on a computer, tablet, or phone screen is very different from reading on paper. I always pick on HR, so let’s start there. HR drafts a lot of content for print so spouses can read and engage with the topics too:

  • Benefits enrollment guides
  • Life event/change instructions
  • Benefit summary plan descriptions
  • Learning course catalogs

Elementary school teachers frankly teach a style of writing designed for print. They don’t incorporate the many techniques that help on-screen readers consume and recall content.

When you edit content for on-screen use, target content intended for a majority of users, or that used most frequently. And, start teaching all your authors how to write for the screen. HR has a lot of candidate content.

How Do People Read Content Online?

This is the crucial question. If our end game is to get readers or users through the content swiftly, comprehending along the way, then we must write differently.

Here are the three most important things that should influence how you write:

  1. People read in an F-shape, doing the top bar of the F, then the middle horizontal bar, then finally the left vertical bar. We’ve known this for a long time. For more on this, check out this post by Nielsen Norman Group from 2006.
    Figure 1: F Shape of Reading Online
  2. Many see only the first 2-3 words of each line. Whether it’s a bullet, the first line of a paragraph or a headline/subhead, you better make those first 2-3 words count.
  3. A majority scans rather than reads. So we must do things that draw their scanning eyes, like using digits rather than letters for all data points (even if it’s a “5”; not “five”).

The issue of spacing after periods falls on the controversial side of things.

Using two spaces after a period is a throwback to the IBM Selectric typewriter era, when every character was the same width. For example, an “L” was the same width as a “W.”

Enter proportional spacing, which we have on our computers largely because Apple’s genius Steve Jobs was enamored with great typography.

While the science isn’t entirely proven, most typographers believe two spaces after a period causes readers to perceive too much space and therefore slow down.

Creating emphasis is yet another controversy. Whether you read in print or on screen, you read by the shape of the word.

So, anytime you alter the shape of a word you force the reader to slow down. Italics, underlining and bold all alter word shape.

The least offensive of these is bold, so use bold when trying to emphasize a word or phrase. Underlining is the standard for links and should be reserved for links in on-screen content.

5 Tips for Increased Readability Online

Such points are great when you get push back from others in the organization about your editing. To support you further, feel free to add these key tips:

  • There is a 25 percent reduction in readability online versus print--less content is better.
  • Most people won’t scroll on a desktop browser.
  • Many scroll too fast on hand-held devices.
  • When using bullets, use no more than 10 bullets in a list, use fragments rather than complete sentences, include only one idea per bullet.
  • Titles, headlines and subheads should use subject and verb, descriptive words and fewer than ten words total.

Also keep in mind that using complex terms, jargon and long words and sentences can make readers feel stupid and reduce their comprehension. So, keep it brief, simple and to the point.

Anyone authoring content for the enterprise wants the same thing any author wants: to have the content read and acted upon. Taking several simple steps can get your online content read, understood and acted upon.


Stacy Wilson, ABC, Eloquor Consulting, helps companies communicate more effectively with employees in the digital workplace. Her specialty is supporting governance, usability, content and adoption for digital workplaces/intranets, along with change communication for technology change such as ERP implementations. Connect with Stacy at LinkedIn or on Twitter, or with Eloquor on Facebook.

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