Friday, July 07, 2006

User focused language for intranets and websites

Despite the growing awareness of content quality and usability, there are still many organisations and online content producers that can’t get out of their headspace and silos. (See user driven culture).

Why are some still continuing to develop intranet and website content focused on what we or our managers think users may want/

A summary:
  • Find out what users do, need and want and give it to them
  • Use the language your users understand
  • Use simple, focused plain English when possible
  • Use active language based on task or actions
  • Structure IA's based on card sorting and other IA methodolgies
  • Don't make assumptions about certain groups without testing
  • Undertake user research as a matter of course

Use simple active language

The growing use of simple active language has been a great move for many sites.
I am currently working on a large intranet section that uses simple “How do I…” style questions broken into categories based on the verb...

How do I find….?
How do I order….?
How do I book….?

This isn’t the only way to get this information on the site but it provides users with a relatively simple and quick way to find information on key tasks and processes within the organisation.

This has been well recieved by users tested so far.

Organisation-wide intranets

Stop using terms focused on the group/department/section etc. If content is for the entire organisation or even just a few users outside of the content writer’s group ensure that the language used can be understood by all.

Never assume that all users have been in the organisation for a long enough time to learn acronyms. I have recently worked for a government sector organisation where acronyms were rife to the point of being silly.

Every project, every training programme, even strategic policy documents were named with a bunch of meaningless letters. The main reason for this is most likely internal branding. But information or content titled by a bunch of letters is not going to help users find relevant information.

At least make sure acronyms have the full title in headings links and introductions
i.e. LTSP (Long Term Strategic Plan).

There is no business reason why plain English terminology cannot be used in general intranet content.

For technical documentation, legal policy etc plain English is not always possible or preferable but make sure that a summary is provided in simplified and focused language and give users the choice whether they want the detail or not.

Much of the reasoning against the use of simple focused language is the ego of the writer or departmental manager and the mindless consideration of ‘our department’s profile/image/presence etc’.

Intranets are generally cross-organisational business tools thus ‘siloist’ egos need to be left at the login screen.

Accountants understand the same language but navigate differently

An interesting example of ‘siloist’ thought I experienced recently was around why a certain section on the intranet had completely different navigation (in terms of layout as opposed to wording) from other sections. The reason was ‘they are accountants’ and will understand…

Never assume that because only accountants (for example) may be using your content that they will navigate and ‘read’ the same way. They will most likely all understand your terminology but accountants will differ in their online skills as much as any other group.

Follow consistent standards to support all levels of users.


Never use your organisation’s terminology or structure to make your IA for external users. Users are on your site to make a decision or take an action. Your IA and content should be based around supporting this.

This is where card sorting with external users becomes essential. Invest in research and usability testing. It will save you many headaches and potentially lost revenue later on.

If your site is for teenagers make sure you test with teenagers, the same for businesspeople, sportspeople, the elderly… whoever your site’s primary users are. If it’s a broad focus of people then test with a broad range of users.

A good example I heard recently was for a tertiary education site. When describing ‘facilities’ many students, when tested, saw the word as ‘faculties’ which was well used throughout the site.

Instead of using ‘facilities’, simplified and focused language such as ‘things to do on campus’, ‘where to eat’, ‘shops on campus’, sports and recreation’ etc were used instead rather than one word to try and hold them all.

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At 5:26 am, Blogger superk said...

Excellent article Nick! We're moving into that direction also, and I need as much documentation (read: articles like yours) to bullet-proof my approach. Keep up the good writing!


At 8:59 pm, Anonymous ido said...

Great Post!
just 1 small comment:
in the article you write:
"At least make sure acronyms have the full title in headings links and introductions"
But near the end you use the acronym IA without explaining it:
"Never use your organisation’s terminology or structure to make your IA for external users."


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