Get to the goods

The web is a user-driven medium. People want to complete a task, and do it quickly. If a website is difficult to navigate or read, they'll leave.

  • Focus on the user, not on yourself. Users are self-absorbed and task-focused. Find their top tasks and make them easy to do.
     
  • Keep content short and to the point. Consider what information the user is seeking and make it immediately available. Avoid unnecessary introductory text – phrases like "welcome to this web page."
     
  • Break text up into easily digestible "chunks" with clear, consise headings. Get used to writing meaningful sub-headings.
     
  • Bold relevant words and use bulleted/numbered lists to make it easy for users to scan content.
     
  • Use plain language. Even the most sophisticated users appreciate straightforward writing. Keep your sentence structure simple and avoid uncommon words, slang and jargon.
     
  • Keep visitors engaged with a "call to action" on every page. Users should be guided to the next natural step on every page.
     
  • Links need to give your user a good idea about where they're going. Don't use "click here" or the URL as link text. If the link isn't clear to your new user, briefly describe it.

Prioritize phone

The #1 mistake is not prioritizing phones. The majority of your audience is viewing your page on a phone.

To view your page on phone:

  • Make your browser smaller
  • Use developer tools (Chrome: Ctrl + Shift + J), device toolbar (Ctrl + Shift + M)
  • Open your page on a phone

Are your top tasks still easy to do? Are your big photos now pushing away your top tasks? Are you overly wordy or not using headings, so that your top tasks are hard to find? If so, review "Get to the goods" above.

Remove content

More important than adding content to your pages is removing unnecessary content from them. On many higher ed pages, upwards of 75% of content is garbage, especially in admissions and financial aid pages. So think about what's outdated, irreverent, unnecessary, or should be moved to a different page. Can parts of your long sentence be removed and it still deliver the same message? Does the user really care about that detail? Has that instruction already been defined? Think slim. 

Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice

Why use whitespace?

Readers need rest between ideas. Too much cluttered content is taxing on your reader's brain, and less scannable. Keeping everything "above the fold" is outdated and bad web design. Scrolling is OK.

How to use whitespace

Use side boxes sparingly. They should contain at most a small ad and/or your top task links. Your page likely already has side boxes, which are the left menu and Contact box. Users eagerly scroll down when your content is relevant.

Use the body of your page. The body area should contain 90% of your content, using heading + small paragraph pairs. It might look boring, but this format is extremely scannable and usable.

Include your cornerstone content. Remove the rest.

Imagine with me for a second . . . someone has just arrived at your website, and this person has no idea what you’re talking about. And this is an important visitor.

Pretend further that this single visitor could make the difference between success and failure for your business. She has no time to waste poking around your site trying to figure out what you’re all about, so she immediately picks up the phone and calls you, demanding an explanation.

What do you tell her?

You’d probably give her essential information about how you understand her problem, options for solving the problem, examples of how you can help, and explanations of why you perfectly meet her needs, right? And I’m betting you’d want to explain it in the most compelling fashion you could, given what’s riding on the deal.

In a nutshell, that’s what Google wants you to do with the content on your site. 

Copyblogger

Use sub-headings (like this)

Try to place a heading above each paragraph. While users often scan past bodies of text, they'll usually read headings, so it's important to make them count.

Be specific in brags

Frou frou is a bragging sentence that doesn't prove anything. An easy indicator of whether something's frou frou is asking whether competing or similar units--colleges, departments, labs--can list exactly that same statement on their page. Instead of frou frou, use unique claims with support, especially including numbers. Your general brag statement, if linked to a page with support, would also be fine.

Visitors want to know why your school is special and what you’re proud of as an institution. Gather those statistics, rankings, and awards, and make them easy to find. Nielsen Norman Group

Cite benefits, not features

One of the most repeated rules of compelling copy is to stress benefits, not features. In other words, identify the underlying benefit that each feature of a product or service provides to the prospect, because that’s what will prompt the purchase.

Copyblogger

Write good link text

The simple rule is to make your link indicative of where it goes. Users don't click frivolously. Rather, they click links like handing out money. You must earn trust by giving a clear indication of what this link means.

Do:

  1. Link the noun, verb + noun, or even an entire sentence--whatever is descriptive of your destination.
  2. If the link context isn't perfectly clear of what this link does for the user, provide a short description with the link.

Don't:

  1. Use "Click here," the URL, or other unclear language as your link.
  2. Use extra formatting (e.g. bold, ALL CAPS) for your links.

Read More: A Link is a Promise

Additional Reading

  1. Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts
  2. Usability.gov's Writing for the Web