What Not to Do: Content Creation "Best Practices"
As information processing has evolved, so has the way we prepare and present content
Do you remember how we used to learn before the internet? It involved paper, analog video sources, understanding the Dewey Decimal System and viewing media on microform or the occasional CD-ROM. Yes, you had to work to find reference material, and there was no Google Assistant to help. However, these pre-1992 materials – the dictionaries, encyclopedias and all the rest – shared information in streamlined, easy-to-digest formats. While technology advances have changed the world in ways we previously could only imagine, how has technology helped (or hurt) us in meeting the basic need of clear communication?
Sorry World Wide Web, the truth is that your interconnected, hyperlinked world is both powerful and problematic. What we need now is a streamlined approach to leveraging new technologies while helping us easily digest hordes of information. There is so much more content for us to discover but finding it and learning how to simplify our learning has become a problem all its own.
As the founder and CEO of a technology company, I can tell you it’s also changed just about every aspect of my life. There are new technologies and devices entering the scene daily, meaning the always-on availability of nearly limitless amounts of information fundamentally changes how we are able to process data for deep meaning and true context.
Not only has our information processing ability evolved, but so has the way we prepare and present communications to one another. Sadly, many of the best practices used every day for content creation hinder our ability to process and understand information.
Here are some common examples:
LOOK! OVER HERE … NO WAIT, COME THIS WAY!
Hyperlinks are what make the World Wide Web, well, a web. They link from one page, file or document to another with a goal of providing deeper meaning and context in the process. In a digital era where information is in abundance, hyperlinks can organize our attention by suggesting which ideas are worth clicking and which are not.
But how many times have you clicked on a link to get more information and found yourself still surfing the web several minutes later – instead of focusing on your original page? Hyperlinks that take you someplace else can be distracting and they often cause your audience to “get lost,” impeding their ability to gain a complete understanding of the content they clicked away from. In some cases, readers never make their way back or, worse yet, find themselves in a self-referencing cycle where the same page you read before is rendered again. It’s like being lost in a maze where you know you are doubling back on your previous tracks.
HTML. PDF DOCUMENT. POWERPOINT. OR ALL OF THE ABOVE
The inability to communicate is often the downfall of many projects, careers and companies. Consequently, businesses regularly use multiple communication formats to reach the widest audience possible when conveying important information. And of course, each format offers some advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the message and the individuals on the receiving end, organizations must tailor this content carefully, so the least amount of confusion occurs between the content creator and their audience. By definition, effective communication only occurs when the receiver is able to comprehend the information or idea the sender intends to convey.
Too often, additional information that would aid comprehension and facilitate robust communication is contained in a file format that requires another window or program be opened – like a video or downloadable PDF resource. Much like hyperlinks, this is another “look over here” distraction that can cause disengagement with the core content. Moving your reader to different pages or formats discourages “deep reading,” which is one of the best ways to ensure the information is effectively processed. Another way to ensure information is properly communicated is to learn how clients enjoy digesting content and offer it in that format. Blasting out a huge PowerPoint presentation, for example, might not be ideal if much of your audience likes to consume information on a smartphone.
I READ IT. WELL, I SKIMMED IT.
Skimming is used to quickly identify the main ideas of a text and can be accomplished three to four times more quickly than normal reading. Scanning, on the other hand, is often used when searching for particular information. People typically skim when they have lots of content to pore over in a limited amount of time, and scanning is frequently used to search for key words or ideas. Once a page has been scanned, often readers go back and skim for additional info.
We have been trained to read traditional web pages in a "skimming" fashion and are encouraged to jump from page to page quickly. In fact, according to research from Chartbeat, most people only read about 60 percent of an online article (glad to see you’re still with me here), while 10 percent of people never scroll through a story they click on. Making matters worse, research shows people have more difficulty reading on a computer screen than from paper. While scanning and skimming are normal reader behaviors, they can act as roadblocks on the path to comprehension and effective communication in the digital age.
THE TOP 10 LIST — IN JUST 22 CLICKS
Pagination is up there with the worst design and usability wrongs on the world wide web. Articles are often broken into three or more pages to gain more "clicks" from readers, and because splitting a single-page article into multiple pages can theoretically yield additional opportunities to display advertisements. In fact, some publications’ editorial guidelines call for articles to be split into multiple pages once they hit a certain threshold.
This phenomenon tricks readers into clicking on articles that turn out to be mere fractions of the entire story. Pieces that should be readable on a single page visit require one, two, sometimes up to nine or more page-clicks. This is an issue as many readers turn away if they even have to click to keep reading once. Unfortunately, the practice has become so ubiquitous many people now believe multi-page design is how the internet has always been and how it should be. It’s not. While pagination can make pages seem more welcoming and digestible, such breaks and distractions, again, get in the way of a deep understanding of material.
In the end, just because technology allows you to do something, it doesn’t mean you have to – or even should. In today’s digital world, we are all authors and content creators using a variety of tools, but we need to alter outdated best practices, so we serve our modern readers.
When creating content that you want to be engaging and interactive, it's important to consider how people best read and learn in addition to best web design practices — as they are often in direct conflict with one another. Consider when you hyperlink, where you reference additional information, how readers consume content and where you display information to entice your readers to delve deeper.
Sherisse Hawkins is the founder and CEO of Colorado-based Pagedip and a former participant in Shark Tank. Hawkins and her company have developed an online communication platform that companies can use to ensure employees and/or customers always have the most recent versions of any document, presenting it in a way that facilitates understanding and strong communication by inviting users to navigate content according to their own style of learning.