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Friday, April 29, 2016

Simply Said: Plain Language for the Web

by Debra Torres

Communicate with your readers - naturally

There’s a word that my Cuban mother-in-law uses in conversation that tells me when she’s ready to listen. And although I’ve tried and failed to learn Spanish many times, I do know that when this one rolls off her tongue, it means she’s all ears.

The word is “dime.” It sounds like “dee-may.” And it simply means: “Tell me.”

It reminds me of a phrase that I sometimes use when I’m ready to really engage in a heartfelt discussion: “Let’s talk.”

“Let’s talk” or “tell me” moments make for the best kinds of conversation, I think. To me, they indicate that it’s time to kick off your shoes, grab a cup of something warm, and have a heart-to-heart with someone you care about.

In moments like these, people talk at the same level. They naturally stay conversational and ease up on the use of complicated language. 

I think this is why I love writing for the web so much. It’s filled with “tell me” and “let’s talk” moments.

Or at least it should be.

Are You Relating to Your Audience?

Unfortunately, more often than not, we use the web as a platform to “talk at” or “down to” our users in a way that can create a disconnect with them. In a medium that can create a warm, one-on-one experience, our scholarly language can come off cold and standoffish.    

We don’t mean to communicate this way, I’m sure. Who tries to alienate their target audience on purpose?

I think that maybe we’re just not understanding that the secret to engaging our audience on the web lies in keeping our text simple and relational.

In a Q&A over on the Acrolinx blog, Deborah Bosley from The Plain Language Group suggests that when you're describing something to your target audience, you should write it the same way you would imagine them describing it to their friends. “That often means not talking to them like they’re subject matter experts,” she says, “but rather using language that’s plain, direct, and succinct.”

Bosley also gives some tips on plain language that include:

  • Keep your sentences short (15-18 words)
  • Keep paragraphs short (3-5 short sentences)
  • Use 3-5 headings per page 

Write for Their Reading Level

Because of a multitude of factors like disabilities, device limitations, and the fast pace of our culture, I suggest you write at an 8th grade reading level. With a level that low, you know you’ve lost a good portion of your readers when your web copy tests in at a much higher level.

If you’re looking over your pages now and seeing some room for improvement, you’re not alone. Huge companies and even government sites are seeing the value of plain language and are making the switch. And Google is even rewarding sites with better ranking when page text is written plainly and clearly.

Let’s Talk

The Liberty University Web Content Team wants to help you make your pages more readable for your users. For starters, you can read our Web Writing Tips and our Voice and Tone Guidelines. There are also many great posts in this blog that can help get you started. Connecting with your users in a way that they understand is not as hard as you may think. The answer is an easy one.

Keep it simple. 

Debra Torres Web Content Specialist

Posted at 11:13 AM | Permalink

Friday, March 18, 2016

Walls of Text: They keep your users out

By Kari Barton

Do you have a lot of vital information to tell your users? Of course you do! But let's communicate it better than providing the user with a giant wall of copy. They won't read this dense text anyway because it's too daunting and lacking that "information scent" which lets them know they're on the right track. 

You and I are web users as well as content creators, so we know first-hand that large blocks of text are not inviting to read. 

Creating Barriers

Here's a wall of text:

No one wants to read this. It's simply too long and doesn't look like it will contain any information that I want to know. I don't even know how to scan it because nothing stands out. 

Tear Down That Wall!

Here's the text from the example above, but redone: 


Now we can actually scan the text and pick out what areas we might want to read further. It invites us to read by breaking up the text into manageable chunks, and - best of all - it allows us to quickly find and focus on the areas we're most interested in. 

Here's how we broke down the wall:

  • Put lists in bullets instead of paragraphs: Bullets are great for quick scanning and identifying lists!
  • Added headers: Headers break up paragraphs and allow users to identify what section they want to read for more information. 
  • Added links: Linking is crucial on the web. Whenever appropriate, add a link to point your users to more information on a particular topic that you are referring to. 
  • Cut the unnecessary parts: If there are words and ideas in the text that don't help the user better understand the topic at hand, cut out that ROT!

You can do it too!

Take a look at your most text-heavy pages and consider if the page is still easy to scan and user friendly.

Test It

You can test if a page is easy to scan by showing it to someone (who is not already familiar with the page) for about 5 seconds and seeing if they were able to get the basic gist of the page. That's about how long your users will spend scanning your page before either finding what they're looking for or clicking the back button. Don't keep them out by building a wall!

Kari Barton Web Content Specialist

Posted at 10:54 AM | Permalink

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Eliminating Your FAQ Page

by Nathan Skaggs

Users expect to find the information they’re looking for when they visit your page. So why send them somewhere else like an FAQ page? The best way to give users the information they need is to include it on your page.

If users are having a hard time finding an answer on your department’s webpage, it’s time to find out why and then make a change.

What’s the reason?

It’s important to know why your page doesn’t have the answers before we talk about how to fix the problem. This will give you a better understanding of the direction you’ll need to take when reworking your page.

So why aren’t you already answering your user’s questions?

  • Is your page too complicated? Simplify it.
  • Are the answers buried under content ROT? Clean it up.
  • Does your page not even have the answer? It should.

Remember, your page is about the user. Make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for.

What to do instead

Most often FAQ pages answer the most basic questions that should already be answered on the page. I like the way web designer Christopher Mackay describes FAQs in his blog on Tantramar Interactive:

“What an FAQ page says to your visitors: “We could’ve answered your shipping question on the Shipping page, but it’s easier for us to put everything in one place; your convenience is a secondary consideration (if that).”

Put the shipping information on the shipping page. If the information doesn't belong on that page, lead the user to the appropriate page by using well-organized and clearly labeled links in your navigation.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, here are a couple of simple fixes you can make to your pages that will do exactly that and eliminate your need for an FAQ page.

Use headings

Users will scan your page to find the information important to them in that moment. Headings are a great way to organize information on your page.

A list of questions with answers can be hard to sift through. Don’t make the user dig for answers. Consider headings your neon sign that draws users to the information.

Headings should:

  • Be descriptive of the content that follows
  • Be short and to the point
  • Help organize your information in a way that makes sense to the user

Organizing your pages into manageable sections will help the user find exactly what they’re looking for. They won’t have to search through blocks of text or pages of answers because you‘ve already done the work for them.

Use lists

Bulleted and numbered lists are a great way to organize the information within each section on your page. Lists can help keep your important information from getting buried under the text. Pair your list with a descriptive header or lead-in sentence. This will help the user find what they need with a quick glance at the page.

Let's use this line for our example: "Now that you're ready to apply, you need to fill out the application, create an introductory video, and then submit both online."

There are three main steps listed in the above sentence, but your user won't know that with a glance at the page.

Do something like this instead:

Steps To Apply (heading)

Now that you're ready to apply, here's what you need to do:

  1. Fill out the application
  2. Record an introductory video
  3. Submit your application and video

See how much clearer this is? The header tells the user exactly what information they'll find in that section. A numbered list organizes it for easy reference. Immediately your user will know what the steps are without having to sort it for themselves.

An FAQ page is a last resort

Don’t rely on an FAQ page to do the job that your regular pages should be doing. However, there are cases when an FAQ page might be needed.

Complicated financial aid or admissions processes might benefit from an FAQ page. Still, you should briefly answer the questions on your main page before sending them to an FAQ page. And don’t forget to always link back to the corresponding page from the FAQ page.

Make the change

Remember, whichever page your user is on is your most important page. So treat it that way. By using headers and lists, you will be able to cover a wide range of information in a clear and concise way. And don’t forget to keep your pages up-to-date to avoid any unnecessary confusion. After you’ve made these simple changes your pages will be so organized you won’t need an FAQ page!

Nathan Skaggs

Posted at 4:31 PM | Permalink

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How to Clean Up Content ROT

By Diane Austin

The new year is a great time to clean up your department web pages and declutter your File Manager. By keeping only the things you really need, you can simplify and streamline the job of web maintenance.

Start by getting rid of ROT – Redundant, Outdated, and Trivial content. Here’s a brief guide to help you identify and eliminate ROT in your web pages.

Redundant Content

Content is redundant when multiple pages communicate the same thing. The great thing about the web is that you don’t need to duplicate content that is available somewhere else. Instead, you can just link to it. Redundant content confuses web visitors and creates unnecessary clutter.

Outdated Content

This is simple – if you are using future tense language to talk about something that’s already happened, then you have outdated content.

Here are some other types of outdated content:

  • You have faculty/staff bios for people who no longer work in your department
  • You move your office, but don’t update your room number on the web
  • Your web content talks about your “new offices,” but you moved 3 years ago

Make sure images and documents are up to date, as well as other information on your site. You can read how to handle updates to images and PDFs in our file naming blog post.

Instead of creating new replacement pages with updated content, try updating your existing pages with the latest information instead. Otherwise, the old page may still show up in search results and your visitors will get confused. If you can’t update it, just get rid of it.

If you have information about an annual event and you don’t want to recreate the page every year, just unlink it and keep the page. You could add a note saying that the page will be updated for next year’s event as information becomes available. This will help avoid confusion if someone finds the page through search.

Trivial Content

Trivial content is probably the hardest to identify. Generally it is any content that is insignificant to your visitors or unrelated to your website’s purpose. It may help to rate this on a scale of 1-5, with "5" being vitally important and "1" being completely irrelevant. Anything with a 1-2 should be cut, a 5 should stay, and 3-4's may require further thought. Some information may be nice to have, but not essential. Does that make it trivial? Remember to keep your audience in mind when evaluating for trivial content. Tailor your content to their needs and trim away anything that doesn’t help them accomplish what you want them to do.

Start your ROT cleanup!

ROT can be found in two places – your department PIDs and in File Manager. To get rid of it, you first must identify it.

GemGo through your Web Manager File Manager and make sure you are only storing files that you actually use. If you have old, outdated images and PDFs, delete them! Remember, if it’s in File Manager, it can be found through search.

The Web Content Team can help you get started by guiding you through a content audit, a review and evaluation of all your department web pages, including text, images, and links.

Like a jeweler cuts and polishes a rough stone to reveal a brilliant gem, you can trim away the ROT in your web content to reveal the useful information visitors are searching for.



SEO Specialist Diane Austin

Posted at 10:55 AM | Permalink

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Making Academic Pages Great for the Web

Did you know that your web content has the power to invite, inspire, and engage your page visitors? And yet content can also exclude, bore, or frustrate them. That’s because (even on the web) how we say something is just as important as what we say. And finding out how to say it specifically for your web audience can be a little tricky.

That’s why the Web Content Team, in conjunction with the Provost’s Office, will be working with all academic schools and departments on voice and tone updates starting in December.

We’ve been busily researching, testing, and formulating plans for improving our website’s effectiveness and success. With these upcoming improvements, your academic department will enjoy:

  • Consistent voice and tone
  • User-centered copy
  • Strategic keyword placement for better search results
  • Streamlined content

We’ll be gradually making our way through all academic content, keeping you informed as we go. We’ll let you know when we are ready to begin with your department. Then, you can expect the text on your pages to begin to reflect the voice and tone of the university.

Here’s what you can do in the meantime to be ready:

  1. Make sure all your web content is accurate and up to date
  2. Use spellcheck on your pages and fix all broken links
  3. Delete redundant or unneeded content, as well as unused files from your File Manager

We’ll be in touch,
—Web Content Team

Posted at 3:12 PM | Permalink

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