You’ve probably heard of usability. Back in the day, when the web was wild(er) and free(r), usability proponents like Jakob Nielsen encouraged site owners to stop doing things like displaying yellow text on black backgrounds, shun the Blink and Marquee tags, and focus on helping users do what they wanted to do on websites.
These days, usability is crucial to the success not just of blogs, but of online businesses—much of the information we read about reducing friction and improving sales pages, for example, is based on usability principles. So are the layouts of popular blog themes, online image albums and video players, and so on.
But we can go further than this, to look at the usability of our content. Content usability isn’t often talked about, but as content creators, bloggers should get their heads around this idea.
What is content usability?
Content usability focuses on making the information we publish as usable a possible to the users our blogs target.An example: if your blog targets people with dyslexia or other reading and comprehension difficulties, you’ll tailor your content to their needs. That might mean tweaking your layout, avoiding certain color combinations, changing your default fonts, altering your writing style, and so on.
Another example: if you run a blog that’s focused on promoting special offers (like a deal-aggregation blog, for example), you’ll want to make sure that every aspect of your content is targeted to readers achieving the goal of taking up those deals. Maybe you’ll make the deal links stand out through color choice. Perhaps you’ll also provide the details of each deal in a sidebar so that users don’t need to scroll through your content to find the links. Perhaps you’ll pull out the key aspects of each deal into a “vital stats” list that appears at the top of every post, for the same reason.
As you can see, the notion of content usability is closely tied to your audience and your blog’s purpose. That said, there are some general usability principles that you should consider in formulating your content.
Principles of content usability
Aside from the most basic ideas of content usability—accurate spelling, good structure, and so on—there are a few content usability principles that bloggers often ignore.
Use consistent formatting
Darren’s provided some detailed formatting advice for bloggers, and formatting is a big deal for usability.
The real key to formatting usability is to use formatting consistently, so that headings of the same level are given the appropriate markup (second-level headings are all H2s, for example), emphasis is always used in the same way, and so on.
This matters for a range of reasons that aren’t limited to the fact that human beings are reading your blog posts—SEO and screen readers, for example. But at its most basic, formatting tells readers something about the nature of the content you’re presenting, and about its component parts.
If I use italics for emphasis here, and bold here, you may well become confused, even subconsciously. Why are those two items (they could be headings, or titles, or images, or buttons) presented differently? Are they different? Okay, so that formatting might not make my content unusable, but it does reduce its usability. How? By increasing confusion.
Don’t underline online text
Using underlines on web text wasn’t cool in Jakob’s day, and it’s still not—even though web design, and web users, have both come a long way since then.
In the good (or bad, depending on how you see things) old days, underlines on text were reserved for hyperlinks—that was the signal to web users that the text was linked to another resource. It still is on many sites, and many of us still regard an underline as the standard form of web link.
Underline your text without a link—for the sake of emphasis, say—and you’ll confuse more than a few of your readers.
The web offers us a great benefit over every other communications medium in that when we refer to something or someone, we can show readers what that is without breaking the flow of our engagement with them.
Let’s imagine I’m talking to you about content usability, and I want to mention readability, but I’m not sure if you know what that is. Instead of that nice, subtle link I just included in the previous sentence, I’d probably end up saying something like this:
“So, yeah, content usability includes factors like readability and … oh, so readability’s about how easy it is to read and take in—like, comprehend, really—your stuff. So there are these online tests that let you paste in your content and they’ll tell you how readable it is; they’ll give you a readability score that corresponds to school grades and—what’s that? Oh? You know about readability? Cool. So … what was I saying again? Oh yeah, content usability…”
The web offers us the ability to suggest further reading and deeper insight without breaking the flow of communication, or telling readers things they don’t want or need to know. Links make your content more usable, because they make it more useful. Links help your readers to achieve their goals through your blog. Don’t just mention brand names, individuals, or websites: link to the them. And link to them in a way that helps readers predict what they’ll get if they click on the link.
Use pertinent words and phrases
If your content is going to be useable for your audience, surely speaking to those readers is a big part of the communications picture.
You’ll notice here on ProBlogger that we refer to bloggers a lot. We frequently refer to your blog, your audience, and your niche, as these are all terms that are part of the blogging vocabulary, and we all understand what they mean. As a secondary term, we do refer to your site, but only to avoid repetition. First and foremost, we call ourselves bloggers.
This isn’t about SEO—although of course it helps. This decision is about talking to our audience in the terms you understand—terms that resonate with you. Another example: when I first started with ProBlogger I asked Darren specifically if he (and you) referred to your blog visitors as “readers.” This is standard terminology on this blog, but it wasn’t for other publications I’ve worked on.
This may seem like a minor issue. But imagine you read three articles on ProBlogger, and not one of them contained any mention of blogs or blogging or readers. Imagine if all they referred to was sites and end users. You might start to question whether the content was really suited to you and your needs. You’d probably wonder how applicable—or useful—it was to your situation.
Use the words your readers know, understand, and expect. And use them consistently, so users aren’t jarred by a proliferation of terminology. This will help to make your content more usable, though again your readers may not realize it consciously.
Use the most appropriate content form
Content isn’t just words—we have at our disposal diagrams, photographs, video, sound, and interactivity in various forms. Often, written content should take a supporting role. It’s up to us as bloggers to discern those moments, and to use the tags, captions, and other tools available to us to augment, rather than replace, the appropriate content form.
In all cases, we should make the most of those possibilities, even at a text level. If your blog post doesn’t fit into list format, don’t write it as a list post. If as you’re writing, you find that your post becomes a list, go back and make that clear in the title and opening paragraphs. Telling users what they can expect—and then meeting that expectation—is vital to usability.
I’ll admit that I can be a bit slow on the uptake as a web user. That’s not good, because I use the web a lot, and I get grumpy when things don’t go as I expect. I can think of plenty of examples, off the top of my head, where usability could be better.
Each of these examples arises as a result of the point I made above: that on the web, we, as bloggers, can link to resources. That’s the up-side; the down-side is that we, as readers and users, can get confused about what can be clicked on, and where it will lead. Very confused, in some cases.
Like Darren’s Workbooks page—I really want to be able to click on the book titles there! I was looking for a book there today (ProBlogger’s Guide to Blogging for Your Business). I scrolled down, found the title, clicked! …aaaand nothing. I had to go all the way to the scroll bar again, drag it down, and click on the link.
Can your blog’s users click on the things they expect to?
Or, take Google’s page header (it’s not a blog, but it deserves a mention). When I started using Google+ I had some questions and started looking for Help. I saw that little cog in the top-right corner, but I thought it provided access to my settings, not help. Even the page footer, standard location for Help and Privacy links, lacks a link to Help!
Does your blog clearly indicate what’s what, and what leads to where? You might need to do some user testing to find out the truth on this one.
And what about this shot from Copyblogger? This box appears at the bottom of Copyblogger’s right-hand sidebar. I don’t know about you, but I’m a lazy clicker. The box has one link. So (my whiny-teen-alter-ego whinges), why can’t I click anywhere on that box to access the link?
Does your blog make users work harder than they need to?
These kinds of issues may require some lateral thinking—or some user testing—to uncover, but correcting them could make your blog, your newsletter, your sales pages, and your content in general, a whole lot more usable.
Making content usable
Okay, so people don’t talk much about content usability. But people who create content and publish it should have a firm grasp and consciousness of the concept and what it means for their users. We’re not always going to get it right, but we owe it to ourselves and our readers to strive constantly to improve content usability.
How can you do that? You could review some of your content using the ideas I’ve mentioned here, and see where you could make improvements. You could play around with wireframing software like mockingbird to create different presentations for your content. Perhaps you know a usability professional who you can speak to about the principles of usability—or you could just pick up a book on the topic at your local library. Once you get started, you might like to do some user testing to see if you are actually making your content more usable for readers.
If you need a little extra impetus, consider that in many cases, better content usability means better content reusability. Format your posts well, use reader-appropriate language, link wherever you can, and employ the appropriate formats for the message you’re delivering, and you’ll be much more easily able to repackage that content into a saleable format down the track.
How usable is your content? Are you conscious of usability as you write and prepare posts for publication? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.