A few weeks ago, one of the Open Calls on OS asked us to talk about our Worst Job. I really would have liked to join in the fun, but I couldn't.
I can, however, share some of what I learned at one of my best jobs.*
The Siskel and Ebert of Usability
In the late 90s, I seized the opportunity to work at a dot-com startup--one of those legendary places where every day was Sushi Lunch Day. Where a closet full of caffeinated beverages overflowed with Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs and granola bars. Where, at the end of the workday, at 8 pm or so, there was a general cry from the general area of the graphics guys: Let the Video Games Begin!
We were creating an online university, and a damned fine one. The idea was to develop an online MBA program for busy working professionals. We were building it from the ground up. We had a year's venture capital to come up with:
- a clean and functional user interface,
- intuitive, usable navigation tools,
- the backend database infrastructure necessary to track learners' progress,
- and (of course) content.
That's where I came in.
Hired as a course editor, I had the job of translating the work of Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs (pronounced "smeez") into problem-based learning. Most SMEs were professors with day-jobs at prestigious institutions:
- The University of Chicago
- The London School of Economics
Alas, we had no potential customers. Truly, the marketing plan began and ended with "If we build it, they will come." (They didn't. But that's another story.) I'm still proud of the work I did there, even if nobody ever saw it.
One of my courses was Internet Usability, and the SMEs for the course were Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen (those two guys up top).
Don also happened to be the President of Learning Systems at our company, and Jakob was already consulting with us. I suspect the course was more or less a dogbone project to keep the two of them happy.
By the time I worked on the Usability course, was functioning as a combination editor and "Learning Architect" (a job title I got shortly thereafter, in a promotion).
- Work with a Course Developer to come up with a grand, overarching problem/project.
- Transform reams of traditional didactic text (produced by SMEs) into small chunks--learning resources.
- Arrange the learning resources into a sensible content architecture to help the learner create a self-directed learning path and solve the problem.
- Make the learning resources grammatically and syntactically sound.
- Make them make sense. (You'd be surprised how many business professors can't write a comprehensible sentence, let alone meaningful paragraphs.)
- Make them short.
- Make them readable online.
So far in this post, I've been demonstrating everything I learned about writing effectively for the web as I worked with Don and Jakob. Some of it is intuitive and some is not. But first let me demonstrate what not to do.
Readers get fatigued when they have to absorb long uninterrupted blocks of text on a computer screen because it's very tiring for the eyes. White space on a web page is to your eyes what clean air is to your lungs. If you are a writer who tends not to use a lot of paragraph breaks or who follows traditional print paragraphing conventions, you should really be kinder to your readers and insert more paragraph breaks in your work. People will stick around longer. Really, they will. Eyetracking studies show that net users scan more than they read. More than a few lines packed together without punctuation? Kiss of death. Too much work. Even if the sentences themselves are short, it takes a lot of time and energy to keep track of where in the hell you are in the middle of a big block of text onscreen. Net effect: Readers click away and forage for more digestible information elsewhere.
OK, be honest: Wasn't that paragraph kind of tedious and tiresome and irritating to read?
Image source: www.useit.com
An Eyetracking map of a web page. "Warm" colors are where the most eyes fell.
Four Guidelines To Increase Your Readability (And Potentially Your Readership)
First Disclaimer: I intentionally break some of these "rules" a few times each-n-every time I post. Generally the one about writing "short." Partially, I figure I can get away with a certain amount of wordiness, because OS is a site where people come to write, but also to enjoy reading for its own sake. They aren't on a mission like they are on other parts of the Web. So I tend to go on longer here than I would if I were, say, composing objective, instructive prose.
Second Disclaimer: I try to mitigate my tendency to go on at length by using the other guidelines more. But I also try not to use them so much that they become distracting. There is such a thing as a post with too much bold, too many italics and rules and bullets. I fear I sometimes stray into that territory.
Third Disclaimer: if you have a quirky idiosyncratic habit of never capitalizing, things or using, nonstandard punctuation; Or vaRYing tHE CAse of YouR LETters or-if u think ur kewl enuf 2 rite in nonstandard english or if ur stickin it to the man in sum other way and u rlly dont care who liks it or not u shud prolly just stop here altho id be surprized if u got this far in the 1st place (sorry squirrel, love ya buddy, but you're objectively hard on the eyes... and i'm not just talkin' about your nuts).
- If you know you aren't the strongest speller or grammarian, use your grammar- and spellchecker. Really. Please, do. Also, watch out for commonly confused words: Your/you're, its/it's, to/too...
- Think short. If you want to blog a 1000-word composition, break it into a four- or five-part installment piece. Also, find a decent place to break long paragraphs into shorter groups of sentences.
- Make text scannable. Highlight important words in boldface. Use bulleted or numbered lists to chunk information when it makes sense to do so.
- Use formatting and white space to give readers some help. Also, Photos. (You'll notice a few horizontal rules throughout this piece to help visually break it into thought-sections. Rob St. Amant did the same in his wonderful post on information foraging. I already linked it. You should have already read it. You always go where I link you to, don't you?)
(Note to Kerry and Joan: Please have Jakob come and evaluate the usability of OS. Especially in re: finding content users are interested in finding. It'll be eye-opening, I can assure you.)
* My current job is my best job ever. Apologies to all previous employers.