The heart of your website is your content and crafting just the right message is a challenge. The audience is vast, the contexts are varied, and the site visitors’ needs are complex. In addition, Web content has a structure not duplicated in the printed format: content is linked and a visitor’s path through that information cannot be completely controlled.
To effectively communicate on the Web, you have to understand your audience, create a plan to address their needs, and above all, commit to iterative improvement to keep pace with changing circumstances.
How to Have a Great Conversation
The web is a vehicle for conversations. People, and machines like search engines, come to your site, ask questions, explore, read, transact, and take an impression away with them. A few classic questions can help to guide an effective conversation. Ask: Who, What, When, Where and Why.
The Who: Understanding Your Audience
Who is visiting the site now and who might be visiting in the foreseeable future?
To answer these questions, gather your survey data, take a look at your analytics, talk to your customer service and sales reps to find out whom you’re having conversations with online. You’ll want to think about how different your audiences are, and what their needs may be. Colleagues, children, customers, donors, volunteers, legislators, search engines – the way you talk to each of these audiences may be very different.
Your visitors expect the content to be easy to read and for it to fit with your organization’s personality. Included below are some tips for crafting the right message for your audience.
- Using appropriate vocabulary and a consistent voice is critical to the success of your site. It sets a tone and lends credibility to your content.
- Write to the reading level of your potential audience.
- Keep it simple: the more font styles and treatments you use on a page, the harder it will be to read the content. The font you choose should display correctly across browsers, and it should also fit your brand.
- In her book, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk points to research that shows that people are more comfortable with shorter line lengths but can read faster with longer line lengths. When designing pages, look for a compromise between comfort and speed.
The What, Where, When and Why: Understanding Context
In order to continue an effective conversation with your site visitors, it’s important to understand the visitor’s context. Ask, “Why are they visiting?,” “What are they looking for?” “When are they visiting?,” and “What technology are they using?” Once you answer these questions, you can begin to craft the architecture and content that fits your site visitors’ needs.
Tips for providing effective information architecture and content:
- Make navigation obvious and effortless. Group content into logical categories and use standard naming conventions for menu items. Links should always be visible and buttons should always look like buttons, so that it is easy to find the links to more information.
- Assume that many of your visitors will enter your site on a subpage and provide easy ways for the visitor to navigate vertically and horizontally through the site.
- Make content visible to site search tools and search engines by using descriptive content such as page titles, page descriptions, and keywords. Because this content can influence search results, you need to make it clear who you are, what you do, and why the site visitor should care.
- Provide the right content for the context. For example, mobile and desktop users will have different needs, so provide them with different navigation structures and content.
- Break up page content into chunks and provide logical hierarchy through the use of headings and bullets. Use task-based action words to aid in page scanning. Write in short paragraphs and link to more lengthy content when available.
- Provide downloadable content and/or print stylesheets to allow the visitor to read lengthy content offline.
- Use standard naming conventions for form fields, to support automatic completion of forms.
Rinse and Repeat
Great conversations evolve and change over time. Great websites do as well. After you make changes to your site to accommodate your audience and their context, circle back to revisit your survey data, your analytics, and keep talking to your customer service and sales reps to see if the visitors’ needs are being met.
- A List Apart: http://www.alistapart.com/topics/topic/typography
Fonts and accessibility:
- Susan Weinschenk http://www.whatmakesthemclick.net
- Ginny Redish http://www.redish.net
- Kristina Halvorson http://contentstrategy.com
- Erin Kissane http://www.abookapart.com/products/the-elements-of-content-strategy
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