Writing for the web: have the rules changed?

Lesley Hanes | January 27, 2016

Like many web writers, I’ve wondered if the tried and tested rules about writing for the web still apply in today’s multi-device world.

Does changing technology and design mean we need a new or updated approach to writing? I went digging to find out.

Do we still need to keep important content ‘above the fold’?

The part of a webpage that is visible without scrolling is said to be ‘above the fold’. The ‘above the fold’ rule says ‘keep your most important content above the fold and don’t make users scroll because they won’t’.

Web writers and designers have used this rule to good effect by putting important content and visual elements where they are most likely to be seen and used.

So does this rule apply to smartphones with their small screens and super-fast scrolling functions? According to research by usability expert Jakob Nielsen, it does.

What appears at the top of the page vs. what’s hidden will always influence the user experience—regardless of screen size. The average difference in how users treat info above vs. below the fold is 84%.

Source: The Fold Manifesto: Why the Page Fold Still Matters

It’s worth bearing in mind that putting something in a prominent position doesn’t guarantee that people will notice it. Some people start scrolling before a page loads. Others will only go further if there is something that entices them to.

Designers and content marketers have found effective ways to draw people down and through pages. However, what people see ‘above the fold’ helps them decide whether to explore further. So keeping the ‘above the fold’ rule in mind is still good practice.

Do we need to write more concisely for smartphones?

Web writers know to write concisely because attention spans online are short. But does the rise of smartphones mean we need to adopt an even more economical writing style?

In her Information Everywhere: Flexible Content With Responsive Design conference, Nicky Bleiel
recommends we write concisely as ‘mobile users are less likely to wade through content’. Helpfully, she clarifies what concise does and doesn’t mean:

Concise does not mean short. Short tells us nothing. Like a piece of string, text should be as long as necessary. Concise does not mean robospeak, as in ‘push button’ instead of ‘push the button’. Keep the ‘the’. Concise does not mean gutted for mobile. Don’t think, ‘Smartphone users won’t need that’. They will. Concise means minimal: enough to meet your audience’s needs and accomplish your purpose. No more, no less.

Aaron Gustafson, author of Adaptive Web Design, Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement, says:

The baseline experience is always in the form of text. No specific technology shapes this layer, instead its success or failure relies entirely on the skills of the copywriter.
Concise, well-written copy has universal device support and does wonders to improve the accessibility of the content to users.

Image, less is more.

Less is more when it comes to writing for the web. Image by James Stencilowsky / CC BY 2.0

Do people still scan and not read?

In Case Study Eye Tracking: Mobile Devices, a study of how people read and navigate news sites on smartphones, researchers found that most participants scanned text rather than reading it. This fits with the ‘people don’t read, they scan’ mantra we’ve come to know.

They found three different types of readers:

The last two reader types are familiar but the first one less so. Perhaps it shows that when people find something interesting or useful, they do read.

In developing countries, access to smartphones has increased reading and literacy levels. A UNESCO report, Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries, found:

Convenience is a powerful driver of mobile reading. Because of their multiple uses and portable form, phones are often carried around, offering instant access to content throughout the day. Even in countries where most people have access to paper books and e-readers, mobile phone reading is on the rise.

So focused reading does happen, but we still can’t count on it.

Are there any new rules we need to know?

It’s wise to keep up to date with new developments and trends, so you can adapt your practice if you need to. Nicky Bleiel says:

What works well on mobile (smaller) screens will work well on tablets, the desktop, and more.

Source: Flexible Content: An Introduction to Responsive Design

This advice sounds similar to the old adage that ‘what works for the web works for print, but not the other way around’. She gives the following advice to help us optimise our content for mobile devices:

Source: Flexible Content: An Introduction to Responsive Design

Maybe our challenges as web writers are to:

Good technology works for humans, just as good web writing does. And long may that last!

Find out more

Does the F-shaped pattern for reading web content still apply?

Try our Web Lab: Writing for the web

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