Web content and the burden of time

If you rush to put content online you’ll find it’s nearly always longer than it needs to be. It takes time to edit and cut out the words that aren’t doing any real work. Sadly, web writers often don’t spend that time, and users simply won’t!

Web users don’t want to spend time reading

We spend a fair amount of time watching people use the web. In our usability testing sessions, people often make comments like:

‘I don’t want to read all this’.

‘I just want what I need’.

‘If I was at home doing this, I’d have given up by now’.

Time is the common thread in these comments. People don’t want to waste time reading things that aren’t relevant to their current task or goal. They don’t want to wade through web pages that look like dense walls of text—it takes too much time. They want the answer to their question as fast as they can get it.

Web writers don’t have the time they need for writing

Time is also an issue for staff producing content for their organisation’s website. Participants in our writing workshops often tell us that time is their number one problem:

‘I’m expected to find time to write content for our website on top of all my other duties’.

‘Management seems to want things online yesterday. We rarely get the time to think about the content, let alone write it’.

‘Content for the website is usually produced at the last minute. We spend a lot more time and effort on our printed content’.

Time and quality go hand-in-hand

‘I have made this [letter] longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.’ — Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provincials (1657)

A key problem with rushing to put content online is that the content is nearly always much longer than it needs to be. As the quotation from Pascal implies, it takes time to edit and cut out the words, phrases and sentences that aren’t doing any real work.

But that’s not all that can go wrong. Lack of time can lead to content that is poorly focused, structured, designed and worded.

Poor quality content is harder to use. It takes more time to read and more effort to understand.

The burden of time rests with the publisher

One thing is clear. Web users are not going to slow down. They are not going to work longer or harder to try to figure out what your content is trying to say.

The burden of time rests with the publisher — the person in your organisation who is responsible for the site. They must make sure that enough staff and time are available for content production and maintenance. And they must have resources and processes to manage situations where publication timeframes are unavoidably short.

If publishers ignore this, users will ignore the content. Perhaps they will call or email your organisation instead. Some may go elsewhere. Those who struggle on will be frustrated or annoyed. Worse still, they may get the wrong message or make a mistake. Let’s hope it’s not a serious one.