Thursday, February 02, 2006

The value of online writing style guides

My previous post on training intranet content providers generated some welcome repostings and quotes but also some comments like 'take the style guide and shove it' type of thing, as well as questions around how to quantify the value of style guides.

Is there any major organisation intranet or website that doesn't have a style guide for their intranet or website?

I have never come across a successfully managed website or intranet of at least a reasonable size (2,500 pages +) that didn't have at least some guidelines or standards for content.

While some style guides may not go into great details of things like spelling/grammar etc they at least covered basics of good online content and how to use hyperlinks/tables etc.

Quantifying content value

I think the value of content guidelines is really hard to to quantify.

There has been research to show that users can use (and make decisions based) well structured and written content more quickly and more effectively than content that is not.

Again I use the excellent research (yes it's old but it still applies) by Jakob Nielsen to highlight this. It's important to stress that this is actual results from research not just overblown hyperbole (and I refuse get into another 'worth of Jakob Nielsen discussion' :) ).

Good reasons for a writing style guide:

  • Some organisations are required by law to communicate in clear plain English.
  • Consistent writing styles allows for easier reuse of content in different areas meaning costs savings for organisations.
  • Customers are presented with consistent writing styles and content is written at a level where all customers will understand.
  • Same point above for staff using an intranet.
  • Style guides help create the notion that the user is the focus not the writer.
  • Most people are not good writers.
  • Growing diversity means that English is a second language for many workers thus plain English is essential.
  • Saves time (see below for more)

Consistency, consistency, consistency

Anyone who's ever done any usability testing understands that if your site doesn't have consistent layout/navigation schemes/headings/in page links even colours and fonts fails miserably and delivers a horrid user experience.

This is a given and if anyone who actually has research to disprove it then it will be huge eye opener for all online professionals around the world. Please send it through.

The ideal of libertarian content

With the advent of more user contributed content applications such as forums, blogs and wikis (including every other name used for these) I don't believe that style guide works as well or should necessarily be used at all. (i..e my own blog doesn't follow a style guide... although my mistakes probably means that it should!).

Technology focused people must've been rubbing their hands at the idea that they can finally get rid of those pesky intranet/web editors or managers who structure and edit their writing. But like most libertarian 'principles' they fail to grasp the general populace and simply ignore the reality of written material.

The important factor is that the user understands the purpose and source of the content. Most online users of websites and intranets don't want to hunt down through waffle or poor sentences, no layout, no paragraphs etc to get simple pieces of information to make decisions or to do their job.

They don't have time.

So let's put it into really simple terms for an intranet:


user time = organisation money(cost)

poor content = more user time


poor content = more organisation money (cost)

(Again I refer to Jakob's report above)

Wikis. blogs and forums etc all have their place within a defined context like discussions, feedback, project teams, where ideas need to be elicited from a broad range of users, single person monologues (CEO blog) etc.

They do not and will not replace standard well structured and written material to do business. They will support it, but never replace.

If you believe that you haven't gone out and talked to the administrators, secretaries, receptionists etc who just need to understand policy or process not the background, reasoning or some poor writer harping on about something that may be of interest to someone (or so they hope).

Also I think it is important to note that style guides not neceassrily apply the same to all content. But it is essential that it is applied to the content that needs it.

Toby Ward discusses this in his valuable post 'Not all content is created nor need be equal' which discusses James Robertson's equally valuable post (commented on in a previous post).

The dangers of not having a style guide

Imagine policy content in a public sector or financial organisation that had no style applied to it.

The banker, analyst, bureaucrat who developed it would just write as they wanted and guess/ hope that someone will understands it. The legal and business implications of someone making a decision on something they can't understand could prove costly for an organisation.

Its simple risk analysis.

So it simply astounds me that people actually stand up and say 'shove the style guide'. They obviously have never had to trawl though a 30 page document written by someone who can't understand the concept of subheadings.

We should have content standards to help the users fight against waffle and people who think everyone reads and learns like they do.

These are probably the same people who think writing style doesn't matter.

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