Sep 8 2009

Using active voice for web copy

When writing online we always recommend ‘the active voice’ – it is more direct, less wordy, easier to understand. Active voice helps people to grab information quickly and naturally leads to a more conversational tone of voice.

What is the difference between active and passive voice?

This is the way I’ve always explained it:

Active voice
is when the subject is doing something or causing the action

John kicked the ball” – the sentence describes who does what to whom, John is kicking the ball..

The passive voice is the other way around – something is being done to the subject, the subject is the recipient of the action

The ball was kicked by John” – the subject (the ball) is being kicked by John

More examples of the active voice:

Active: Craig slammed down his iPhone

Passive: The iPhone was slammed down by Craig

Active voice minutes:We discussed user journeys. Jane presented the analytics report, further user testing will be undertaken next quarter

Passive voice minutes:User journeys were discussed by those in attendance. The analytics report was presented by Jane, it was agreed that further user testing is to be undertaken next quarter

Writing in the active voice uses less word, makes copy more concise which ticks another online writing basic – remove excess words and use smaller everyday words where possible.

Jul 20 2009

Writing detail pages / information pages

The ‘inverted pyramid style’ of writing and structuring information pages for the web, where the first paragraph summarises the key point of the whole page, is tightly aligned with how users scan and gather information from the web.

In a previous post ‘What are navigation pages / pathway pages‘ I looked at rules of thumb for navigation pages, how to get users to the detailed information quickly.

Now your users have got to the information pages we’ll talk about what to put in them and how to structure them – the ‘inverted pyramid style’, this is relevant for both blog pages and deep content in a site.

What are the user goals on information pages?

  • Scan to check that they got where they thought they were going
  • Scan to see if what they are looking for is on the page
  • Scan to find the key point of the page
  • Possibly read more details to get background information

User research clearly shows users look at the page title, the headings and scan for key words in the text – primarily the first paragraph and then decide if they are going to read the whole page or note.

So how do I write information pages in the ‘inverted pyramid style’

  • Put the key message / main point first – users tend to be selective (and lazy) they will read a few words or a paragraph before deciding if the information is relevant.
  • Sum up the point of the page in a single summary paragraph at the top of the page
  • Then add supporting information, which is ordered relevant to users
  • Finally add history, background, additional links to find our more detail and detailed documents

Why a pyramid?

The pyramid represents the number of users who’ll read the different layers of the page, only a few get to the end – that’s why it’s so important to summarise the key point in the top paragraph of your page.

Who supports the inverted pyramid style?

Web usability gurus such as Jakob Nielson:

Finally you may find these posts useful:

Writing copy for the web:

How much do we read online:

F-shaped pattern for reading online:

Jul 6 2009

What are navigation pages / pathway pages?

In this post I wanted to talk about the user’s needs and general rules of thumb for navigation or pathway pages…

So what’s a navigation page?

Navigation pages are the pages between the home page and the information pages. The aim of navigation pages is to get the user quickly to the information they are looking for.

Most site visitors are on a hunt – they have a goal or task and the navigation page is THE way to get them there quickly (by increasing the scent of information and giving clear links as next steps).

Above: Navigation pages – where they sit in the site hierarchy

From our observations, and other research, people don’t want to read a lot when they are ‘hunting / foraging’ for information. Only when the user has reached the page which screams ‘here’s the information you are looking for’ does the user suddenly turn from information hunting to gathering, they are now ready to feast, read – and devour information!

Some rules of thumb for navigation pages:

  • Navigation pages are really table of contents – they give a quick overview of what’s offered and show the user where to go next
  • Cut the text – most users won’t read even a paragraph of text on a navigation page, the page needs to tell them what to click on / do without reading
  • Links with a short one line of text which includes trigger words / keywords helps
  • Images can help too – make sure they add to the users understanding of what is behind the link and are not just ‘eye candy’
  • Bullet points work really well
  • Marketing messages and copy will be ignored – on navigation pages just make sure user can find the information they are hunting for quickly
  • Don’t panic about the “3 click rule” (or rather “3 click myth”), observing users has taught us they are happy to go beyond 3 clicks if these are quick clicks and the information scent is getting stronger
  • Don’t make people think on navigation pages – use simple language, bullet points, big obvious links to all speed up navigation

An example of a navigation page we designed for – the aim for users to be able to move to the information they need VERY quickly

Directgov ( has lots of really good navigation pages, here’s one for Motoring:

Lots of quick links and bullet points making a highly scannable and therefore quick navigation page.

Of course on many bigger sites we have a couple of layers of navigation page, as long as the information scent gets stronger as the user clicks through these they are fast links and get the user to their destination really quickly.

From the motoring page on DirectGov site clicking on “registering a vehicle” takes the user to another navigation page which then goes to the full information page

What about users landing inside the site?

Many users will land directly in your site, maybe on a navigation page so that’s why its important that navigation pages include:

  • Site logo, name
  • Strapline (make the logo a link to the home page)
  • Global navigation device
  • Home link
  • Site search box if there is one on the site
  • Footer and utility navigation devices

Finally users aren’t perfect!

On navigation pages we see uses clicking / choosing the first option that looks like it fits the bill. Therefore when organising the navigation page make sure:

  • the ordering of lists and priorities on the page are carefully considered
  • the most important information and links are high up the page
  • if you want to persuade users to click one link over another put the priority link above the other one

Once you’ve built the navigation pages test them with users against tasks and goals.

For more information on writing for the web this book is great: ‘Letting go of the words – writing for the web’ by Janice (Ginny) Redish

Apr 15 2009

First 2 Words are critical for scanning lists and headings

Here’s the latest snippet of usability testing from who tested how well users understand the first 11 characters of web site links & headlines

In a nutshell:

Lists are great for scanning and web copy and therefore used all over web sites (search results, category pages, news lists, blog lists, twitter feeds, table of contents, site maps, bulleted and numbered lists in content etc etc).

The research finds users scan and typically see about 2 words for most list items, approximately 11 characters.

The best links had these characteristics:

  • Plain and simple language
  • Specific terminology was used
  • Follow conventions for naming common features
  • Action oriented
  • Show numbers as numerals in web text to catch the users eye and get more into the headline and links

The worst links had these characteristics:

  • Generic, bland words
  • Made up words or terms were used
  • Start with waffle


SEE the full article:

Sep 5 2006

Using duplicate content on your site?

Recent evidence suggests that if search engines detect that you’re making use of duplicate content you may find your website penalized and dropped down a few ranks.

The reason for this ‘SPAM’, search engines are constantly being updated to keep track of the latest stealth techniques to boost your rankings and will drop your site if you employ such underhand tactics.

Only recently a large German car manufacturer was dropped from Google for employing such shady tactics. So don’t make the same mistakes and check your content – and no cheating because they’ll know!

Aug 15 2006

Does blogging = increased traffic?

Blogs seem to be driving the internet these days – while recent reports suggest that overall, growth is slowing for the top sites, sites focused on social networking are more popular than ever.

It seems that blogs have helped the web world through some tough times recently, as some of the main blogging sites show the most increased traffic – and

At one point, traffic increased by 528% according to market research firm ComScore Media Metrix.

Blogging allows individuals the freedom to share their thoughts, knowledge and ideas and the statistics clearly show that people want this sort of content – in fact, go and get blogging now!


Weblog, which is usually shortened to blog, is a website, or section of a website that consists of ‘articles’ or journal entries, written by an individual (or group of individuals) presented in a reverse chronological order.