Tips and tricks I learned as a technical writer! (Part 1)

For much of my career, I worked as a technical writer. I learned a lot about presenting the written word online. Much of it is applicable to blogging, and I find I use many of same tricks on my blog that I used doing online Help. I also obtained a certificate in User-Centered Design and spent a considerable amount of time doing usability work. I’ve learned some valuable information and techniques that can help you make your blog more usable.

If you’re wondering whether you really need to put effort into the usability of your blog, consider these facts:

  • Studies have shown that over 50% of all visits to pages last 10 seconds or less.
  • Users only read about 20% of the words on a page.
  • Users make a decision in seconds as to whether to continue reading the page or leave.

People don’t read, they scan
I twice had the opportunity to use Microsoft labs to test how users read online content. The first time was in the late 90’s. In that test, subjects failed in their tasks even when using the Help. The reason quickly became clear. They didn’t actually read the Help, they just skimmed it. And skimming didn’t work, given our Help design.

The second usability test, about five years later, was with eye-tracking software, where heat maps revealed exactly where users’ eyes went in the online content. Where did their eyes go? To the bold text.

Many studies have shown that users scan web pages, rather than read them. So the first, and most important thing to know is, your audience isn’t reading your posts. They’re scanning.

As part of my coursework to get my UCD certificate, I took a terrific class in how the visual system works. Here are some of the key learnings that are relevant to blog layout.

Our eyes gravitate to picturesgirl
Visuals, especially isolated ones in a sea of text, draw our eyes. The human face, especially, draws us. In fact, people’s eyes, from babyhood, are instinctively drawn to picture of human faces.

We respond to movement
If you are looking at a still scene or page, your eye will be drawn to any movement. We react instinctively to movement. Think of our ancestors, looking out over the tall grassland. The slightest movement drew the eye, because those blades of grass that just shifted might be a stalking tiger.

Items that are different are assumed to have greater importance
On a page that’s a sea of text or in a paragraph where all the letters and words look pretty much the same, anything that  STANDS OUT  both draws our attention and is automatically assumed to be more important.

Again, if you’re an ancient human looking at a sea of green and white grass, and there’s one orange spot, your eye is immediately drawn to that orange spot. You give it more attention and deem it more important. If you didn’t react that way instinctively, you’d probably be tiger-chow.

Close proximity indicates a relationship

  • When one item
  • is next to another item
  • the two are considered to be related in some way

An element that is apart from them is considered to be specifically unrelated to them.

Items that are visually similar are considered related to one another
Even when items are scattered over a page, if they are visually similar, our brain creates a relationship between them. That’s why headings work. Sentences that appear in the same font face, style, and size, even if dispersed over a page, will be considered as somehow having a relationship. Thus, on this page, all the left-justified, bold sentences standing alone are considered headings of the same level.

By now, you’ve probably picked up on a few of the tricks I use.  But in my next post in this series, I’ll spell out some key techniques you can take advantage of to improve the usability of your posts–even if your theme or template is fairly limited.

Neicole M. Crepeau

Creator of TweetPackage.com, I'm a tech industry veteran with 25 year in the industry. I've done technical writing, usability testing, user interface design, and product and program management work. Most recently I've been applying a research and marketing perspective to social media and blogging about that on my personal blog, http://nmc.itdevworks.com. I'm also a mother of four wonderful children and wife of a terrific man--who also happens to be a fantastic software developer. 

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  7 comments for “Tips and tricks I learned as a technical writer! (Part 1)

  1. September 20, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Very useful information, Neicole. I’m looking forward to your follow-up articles.

  2. September 20, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Wonderful information that I can apply to my blog posts immediately.

  3. September 20, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks! Glad you’re finding it useful.

  4. September 20, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    I went back and bolded some of my most recent post! I do this in my sales pages, I don’t know why I didn’t think of doing it as a regular practice in writing my blog… I will now thanks.

  5. September 30, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Great post! This article caught and held my attention, using some of the very tips that were laid out!

  6. February 2, 2010 at 3:23 am

    I used same trick while making notes (whether its a ms word file or just paper sheets). Even though “Highlighters” may help but it’s always great if pupose can be achieved without using them. I tried to use symbols (bullets) to categorize and help me SCAN the important points in short time.But even bullets be of some dark colors . Even “indentations” helped.

  7. March 18, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Good Pointers!

    Laya

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