Summary: Is the content on your intranet easy to read? Tips on how to present content to improve intranet usability, including scannable content, breaking content into sections and how to prioritize information.
In my last post I discussed the affect of bad intranet usability on your navigation, your bottom line and Jar Jar Binks. This time I want to discuss the usability of something on your intranet that many don’t consider: your content.
Of course great consideration and effort goes into the creation of your content. I am NOT talking about what your content SAYS as much as how it LOOKS. Can it be read and processed easily or does it make your users give up and go watch the latest Star Wars teasers trailer for the tenth time? (spoiler alert: no Jar Jar!) Let’s look at what we can do to make your content more usable.
Who among us cannot say that at one time or another, they have been searching for information and come upon the dreaded wall of text – a page of content that seems to scroll forever; paragraph after paragraph with no differentiation, no headers, no lists, no links, no bolded words – nothing to give the reader any indication of hierarchy or importance. Kind of like the opening credits of Star Wars except there is no movie to follow – just a text crawl that goes on forever. Of course the author of the content thought it was ALL important. Well I have news for you content authors out there; your users are not reading every word you are writing. I know this because I would get a lot more complaints if people actually read most of what I write.
But don’t take my word for it, take Jakob Neilsen’s (the guru of usability we discussed in my last blog). A Nielsen Norman Group study1 found that users scan content instead of read. I could write a paragraph about it but instead, here is a bulleted list (hint: lists are a great way to highlight important content):
We can see this in the eye tracking image to the right. Users will scan the first lines of paragraphs then skip down the page in search of content that is relevant to their needs. They look for signposts such as headings, links, bolded words and lists to indicate importance. So what do you learn from this?
Your content should be organized so it is readable onscreen. We are not writing novels here. Users read slower onscreen and don’t tend to want to sit in front of a computer and read a book.
This seems like it should go without saying but in order to be able to glean information from content, the text needs to be legible. Is the font large enough to be easily read by your users? Do you have good contrast between the text and the page background? Poor contrast creates work on the users part. Make sure people can read the content without having to strain themselves. You don’t want them to expend their effort reading your content, you want them to use their effort processing your content.
Users need information and want it broken down for them in digestible amounts. Large amounts of unbroken text can cause users to lose their place, especially when scrolling. This forces them to have to reread pages to find and understand the appropriate information, if they don’t give up and stop reading altogether. This is bad intranet usability. As we discussed last blog, the more time it takes your staff to do a job on the intranet, the more it costs your organization.
Headings should always be clear and direct. They give context and help prime users to the meaning of what is to follow, helping them understand what the following content is about. Headings also help with an understanding of the overall organization and flow of the content.
When I say “clear”, I don’t just mean in WHAT is written, but also HOW it is written. Headings should be a larger font than the rest of the body text so that they stand out. They could well be a different colour font, and if done with taste, even a different font which complements the body text. They should also be separated from the body text by some whitespace to make them stand out. They can also be in a bold font, which leads me to…
Don’t haphazardly bold or italicize words. Sometimes content authors feel the need to emphasize multiple words and phrases to the point that the content can become a MESS. When everything is highlighted, nothing gets emphasis. Reading too much information with heavy formatting is also difficult and slightly irritating, isn’t it? It makes the user feel like they are being randomly yelled at and no one likes that.
Links are important for building connections between content on your intranet. In order to be usable, they need to be recognized as links. They need to stand out from the rest of the content around them. There are a number of ways to do this – make them a different color from the body text, make them bold, add an underline underneath – just make sure they are easily seen by your users.
Also, make sure that links are the same across all the content of your site. Sometimes people will make them blue in one area then red in another, or sometimes even the same color as the body text. This can lead to confusion as to what is a link and what is not. Don’t make your users have to think. Be consistent with your link style.
While I am on the topic of links, make sure to provide a “visited” color for links. Having a unique visited color for links helps users remember what they have clicked in the past. Your users’ working memory is being taxed all day long. They can forget where they found something or how they got to a place on the intranet (or that Jar Jar Binks was ever in a Star Wars movie). Seeing a link that indicates the user has clicked on it before can jog their memory. It is a small thing but can be a big help to your people.
It is important that you prioritize your information and make the most important information the most visible to your users. Why does your page exist? What are the main points you are trying to make? Make sure your users see those by:
PROTIP: if you have an important piece of information, style it in a different manner to the rest of the content so it stands out. (see what I did there?)
Poor intranet usability extends beyond your navigation to the ways in which your content is presented. I hope that these practices will help improve your content and increase engagement on your intranet.
How are usability issues affecting your intranet? Contribute to the discussion by posting your comments below.
1Loranger, Hoa. The Human Mind and Usability: How Your Customers Think. Fremont, CA: Nielsen Norman Group.