Make your lists easier to scan

Neo Insight’s e-newsletter on Usability topics and techniques.

In this issue

Make your lists easier to scan

A quick way to help users get what they want on your website is to make the lists that summarize your content easy to scan. In usability testing, we notice users taking a long time to scan lists. If people take too long in scanning a list, they may give up or leave the page. We also notice that users find links fast in lists when the list is well-structured. Well-structured page-content can be just as important to usability as well-structured navigational menus.

As websites grow, users increasingly navigate using links that occur in the centre of page. Sometimes these links are long lists. Usability principles for making page-content easy to scan are similar to those for navigational menus. People scan lists in an F-shaped pattern – similar to how they scan a whole page of menus, or search results. So here we offer some tips on how to design page content for users’ F-shaped scanning. Lists of links that use these techniques are more efficient at supporting people doing key tasks. But links that avoid these principles can almost be invisible to users.

  1. Chunk lists of links
    If a list is long, break it into sub-headings. People get lost scanning long lists, and skip over the middle items. People can digest more information if it is chunked well. If key links are embedded in paragraphs consider re-writing them as tables or bulleted lists.
  2. Order lists by the users’ priorities
    Sounds trite, but users don’t necessarily want to think like you do. Find out what users really want to do when they are scanning your list, and put those links first in your list. Users often click the first or second link.
  3. Put key words first – and general words last
    As people scan down a list, they look at the first word or two. They may skip over what database or source generated the link, or the date of it. Use words that people will be scanning for – read our article about taking your first step with “Customer Carewords”. This takes a bit of thinking, because good writers often start with general words and get to specifics.
  4. Use plain language
    Use clear words with one or two syllables. “Training” works better than “Career Development”. “Jobs” works better than “Employment Opportunities”.
  5. Use words that describe where the link will take the user
    Make it clear what content the link will load – and make sure the user will recognize it when the page loads. Users turn back when they don’t recognize what they came for.
  6. Make links one clause long
    People scan just a few words, and often ignore links that span more than one line. People notice verb clauses – because web users are typically in “do” mode. Save some descriptive text for after the link. A page full of hypertext can be difficult to differentiate for users. So can links that are too short, or that just provide a number or date.
  7. Differentiate links from one another
    People compare links to decide where to click. If comparisons take a few seconds, or if multiple links are very close in meaning, people lose their train of thought. If people can’t differentiate one link from another, they may assume the page is not specifically for them, and leave.
  8. Put links at the same indent level
    As users scan down bulleted links, they miss the odd link that has no bullet or is not indented. This is even true if the link is in a prime scanning position on the list. If the heading has bullets that are also links, make sure its destination page has content structured similar to the bullets that were under the heading. The similar structure will help people orient themselves quickly.
  9. Use alphabetical ordering as an alternative
    If your list must be long, even after chunking, offer an A-Z alternative. Users will seek out an alphabetical list if your main organization doesn’t work for that task. Read our article about the experience of alphabetic lists.
  10. Keep the main hierarchy in mind
    People scan lists faster if they know where they are in the site. They get confused when they feel they’re in a loop, or can’t get back to a main page. They ignore hierarchies that don’t fit in the main navigational model, or take a while to re-orient.
  11. Keep the users’ main goals in mind
    Only provide links that are important to users. Get rid of links that create noise or clutter – offer an alternative way to find less critical content using “more” or “show all”.

If you author pages, keep this checklist handy. If you manage a large site, send it to the people who publish pages. If you fix usability problems, use this list in your reply to experts who may not be accustomed to writing for list-scanning. No matter what your role, see your content from your user’s perspective by usability testing. You won’t believe how invisible some links can be to users.

The value of the tips above is in creating a common approach across your whole site. When lists of links are presented in a common way, users can get from page to page more easily as they complete their tasks. Call us if you need help.

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Design contact information for action

People use the web to find people. People in our usability testing consistently talk about using the web to get contact information. They look for a phone number, email address, fax, street address, blog, instant message ID – all kinds of ways for people to contact them. When they look for that information they expect to find it very quickly. They get frustrated when they cannot. They are ready to use more than one way to contact you – whether they are shoppers, citizens, purchasing agents, or colleagues. Here are some time-worn tips for making the contact information on your web pages fit people’s expectations.

  1. Keep related contacts near each other
    People are quick to make comparisons. In testing, people commonly compare a few contacts to find the best one. Help users get to the right people. People get frustrated when they have to flip pages to compare. On intranets, people expect links to the person’s organization, a directory listing, or the person’s org chart.
  2. Make it easy to follow the scent
    As people scan contact information, they follow the “scent”. Things attract their eye, like an area code or “@”. They quickly get used to how contact information is presented, so use the same format across your web pages. People then scan for a brief description, like the person’s title, or an area of responsibility. They will look for a point of contact that sounds most relevant, but will settle for a general number – e.g. “group” can sound too generic.
  3. Put contact information right where it is neededPeople look for contact information at the point they need it. They may need more than a generic “Contact Us” page. Get to know where your web visitors are on your website when they need to contact someone. Find out from your call centre where web visitors should be when they call. And provide the right contact details, right there!
  4. Format numbers so people can dial them from their screen
    Sound new? Nope – users have been expecting this since the Hayes command set made it possible in the 1980s. Use common ways of formatting numbers – like real parentheses instead of brackets or cute graphics – so software can find phone numbers on the page. Use a common URI scheme – like “fax:” or “tel:” or “callto” for the same reason. People expect VoIP programs like Skype and Snapanumber to pick out phone numbers so they can dial them or save them in their directory.
  5. Get the user quickly to the task of contacting
    The overall task begins when the contact info is found. People use contact information for a few other things, but making contact is the key task. Help the user do that quickly.
  6. Provide your partner’s webmaster with contact information
    For users that click through to your site, your contact information may be the most important information you can put in the link or button you provide your partners.
  7. Show anticipated response time
    Show the user how long a response might take. When people dial your call centre, they want to know how long they will spend in a queue. If you have an email contact centre, people want to know what will happen next, or how long before they can expect a response. If you allow people to submit a form or application, tell them how long the process takes.

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Quote of the month

“The Network economy is all about people: people are the network. The digital age will be more than anything else about people communicating, interacting and trading with each other.”

Gerry McGovern, The Caring Economy


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