Start with the key point Write in inverted pyramid style

Whatever your essential message is, put it first. Many web users read only a few words of a page - or of a paragraph - before deciding if it is going to be relevant and easy for them to get through. If they think it might not be, they move on. They may jump down the page to a heading or a bulleted list or to very briefly try another paragraph. And that may be all the time and attention that they'll give to a page.

Like many other usability specialists, I have seen that behavior with most web users and most web sites over many years. And now our observations have been confirmed with eye-tracking data. Eye-tracking captures exactly where people's eyes go as they work with web pages. We can look at an individual's pathway through a web page. We can also accumulate data over many people and show the most common ways of using a specific web page.

Figure 6-3 shows accumulated eye-tracking data (called a heat map) for a web information page. Notice how people looked in an F pattern -across the lines at the top of the information and then at the beginning of the bulleted list. Notice how, after the first few lines, they looked more at the beginning of lines than all the way across. (That's typical skimming behavior.) Notice how readership trails off down the page.

Blind web users act similarly. Blind web users scan with their ears. They listen to only a few words before deciding whether to keep going. With their screen-readers, blind web users can jump to the next link or the next heading or the next paragraph - and they do so at an amazingly rapid pace.

Figure 6-3 This heat map from eye-tracking shows the typical F pattern of web reading on information pages. Readers looked most at the first paragraph and then at the beginning of the bulleted lines.

The colors show the concentration of eye fixations, with red indicating the heaviest concentration and blue the least.

Eye-tracking by Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice Coyne, Nielsen Norman Group. Used with permission. For more about the study this picture comes from, see www.useit.com/eyetracking.

Journalists and technical writers know that many readers skim the headlines and the first paragraphs of articles. That's one reason they write in "inverted pyramid" style - with the main point first.

Readership

Inverted pyramid style

Top of article

Top of article

\ / Most readers take \ /in this part.

\ / Main point

\ / Fewer readers stay for this.

Fewer yet stay for this.

\ / Supporting information \ / in order that is relevant \ /to readers

\ / Only a few get all the way to the end.

\ / History, background \/ - if needed

Bottom of article

Bottom of article

Inverted pyramid writing style matches readership.

For many web content writers, using inverted pyramid style requires a major shift in thinking and writing. For school essays and reports, you may have been taught to write in narrative style, telling a whole story in chronological order and building up to the main point at the end - the conclusion. That's not a good style for the workplace or for the web. Busy web users don't have time for that when they are trying to find information. They want the conclusion first.

Jakob Nielsen has advocated inverted pyramid style since 1996. See his Alertbox column at www .useit.com/alertbox/9606.html

Inverted pyramid style Traditional, narrative style

Top of article

Top of article

Main point

History, background, rationale

\ / Supporting information \ / in order that is relevant to readers

What happened, or information in the order that the author thinks of it

History, background \/ - if needed

Main point as conclusion

Bottom of article

Bottom of article

Web users trying to grab and go prefer inverted pyramid style to traditional, narrative style.

Although it may be difficult at first to learn to write in inverted pyramid style, it's a very useful skill. As Chip Scanlan says:

[Inverted pyramid style] also an extremely useful tool for thinking and organizing because it forces the reporter to sum up the point of the story in a single paragraph. Journalism students who master it and then go on to other fields say it comes in handy for writing everything from legal briefs to grant applications.

And, I'll add, for writing successful web pages.

Figure 6-4, a blog article about insurance, shows a good example of inverted pyramid style.

Inverted pyramid style draws readers into the material right at the beginning - often with a small story or with interesting and relevant facts. To see the impact of starting with information that draws the reader into the material, compare two versions of the same information about literacy levels in Figures 6-5 and 6-6.

Chip Scanlan's web column on inverted pyramid style is at www.poynter.org/column .asp?id=52&aid=38693

If you studied technical writing, you may have the benefit of having already learned the "key message first" style. See for example, Blicq and Moretto, 2001. Ron Blicq has taught this style for many years, calling it "pyramid style" rather than "inverted pyramid style." His emphasis is the same as what I'm calling "inverted pyramid here" -focus on your main reader and put the key message up front.

Insurance Pfanet - Health Insurance, Auto Insurance, & Life Insurance News

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As health insurance costs rise, so does number of . uninsured

By Salty Traflon arid Laura Gualin

(May 4,2006) — According to national and local data, many Of us may be closer to losing our health insurance than we might think "No way!" you say? Recent reports might convince you otherwise

The Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey tells us that in 2005. nearly one-third of Amencans ages 19 to 64 were uninsured for some part of the 12 months prior to the survey Of those earning from 120,000 to $40X00,41 percent had been uninsured for some part of the last year

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In 2001,24 percent of U S adults, ages 19 to 64, or 38 n uninsured or had lost their insurance for a period of time in the previous 12 months By 2005, that total had risen to 48 million, or 26 percent of that age group, according to the survey

Much of the growth in the numbers of uninsured results from lost coverage for working families. In the United States today, 83 percent of the uninsured come from working families, including 67 percent whose household head works full lime.

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/^S The title starts us out with the key message.

The first sentence makes that key message personal.

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(May 4,2006) — According to national and local data, many Of us may be closer to losing our health insurance than we might think "No way!" you say? Recent reports might convince you otherwise

The Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey tells us that in 2005. nearly one-third of Amencans ages 19 to 64 were uninsured for some part of the 12 months prior to the survey Of those earning from 120,000 to $40X00,41 percent had been uninsured for some part of the last year

Now readers are more facts.

likely to want to know the

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Figure 6-4 Inverted pyramid style writing starts with the key message. (I changed the colors of the text and background from the original to increase contrast and legibility.) insuranceplanet.blogspot.com

In December 2005, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) released the preliminary findings from Its 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. This survey, the most comprehensive measure of adult literacy in the United States since the 1992 survey, reveals how people use and understand information. The power of this survey is that it uses tasks that people need for success in their everyday lives—filling out an order form or balancing a checkbook or reading a prescription label.

The results placed participants in one of four categories and showed

• 14% of the adult population (30 million people) to be at the below basic literacy level;

■ 44% (95 million people) at the intermediate level; and

■ 13% (28 million people) at the proficient level.

in short, over 93 million people are functioning at a basic or below basic literacy levels meaning they have limited ability "to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential." Over 43% of Americans struggle with basic, everyday tasks that are often taken for granted.

Figure 6-5 Version 1 of an article on literacy levels in the U. S.

More than 43% of Americans struggle with basic, everyday tasks like filling out an order form or reading a prescription label. That's more than 93 million people who find it hard to understand written materials they need.

In December 2005, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) released the preliminary findings from its 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. This survey, the most comprehensive measure of adult literacy in the United States since 1992, reveals how people use and understand information The power of this survey is that it uses tasks that people need for success in their everyday lives, reading an article about a health problem or balancing a checkbook or understanding a bus schedule.

The results placed participants in one of four categories and showed

■ 14% of the U. S. adult population (30 million people) at the below basic literacy (evef;

■ 44% (95 million people) at the intermediate level; and

■ 13% (28 million people) at the proficient level.

Figure 6-6 Version 2 of an article on literacy levels in the U. S.

Did version 2 do a better job of drawing you in? Were you more likely to stop reading part way through the first paragraph of version 1?

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