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Breaking Up Large Documents for the Web – Part 1

by Janice (Ginny) Redish
on September 22, 2009

This article is an excerpt from Ginny’s book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works.

Most people come to the web for information, not for a complete document. They don’t want the user manual; they want instructions for the task they are doing. They don’t want the handbook; they want the answer to specific questions. They want usable, manageable pieces.

What would you do if you were looking for information on obesity and you came across the web document in Figure 5-1?

figure 1

Figure 5-1: A very long document does not work well on the web.

Would you print it out even though it does not tell you how many pages it will take to print it? Would you read it all online, scrolling or paging down many, many times? Or would you decide to go elsewhere for your information, hoping to find something that gave you more clues up front about what topics about obesity it covers?

To present content on the web in the amount that most people want:

  • Think “topic,” not “book.”
  • Break large documents into topics and subtopics.

Think “Topic,” Not “Book”

Imagine that you’ve just bought a new cell phone. You open the box and see a stack of index cards in the box with the phone. Each card tells you how to do one task with the phone: set the time and date, choose the ring tone, put a number into memory, and so on.

How would you feel about getting this information on index cards? What would you do with the cards?

You might never open the plastic wrap around the stack of cards because then it would be hard to keep them together. You’d probably worry about losing them or about how messy they would be in your office, your kitchen, or your briefcase.

In the world of paper, a book is more comfortable than a stack of index cards. You know what to do with the book: you put it on an office shelf or in a kitchen drawer or in your briefcase. In the paper world, you need the book so all the pieces don’t get lost.

But when would you ever go to the book? Wouldn’t it most likely be to look up just one of the topics in the book? How much of the book would you want to look at? Wouldn’t it be just one topic?

Online, we don’t need the book. A better model for content on the web is a database with a good search engine and good navigation.

Figure 5-2 shows how Nokia has broken a user manual into a series of “index cards” on different tasks. Note how Nokia has also taken advantage of the interactivity possible on the web. Each task is not only a separate topic on a separate web page, it is also an animated demonstration. You can grab the information quickly by reading, or you can watch what to do by clicking each step in turn.

figure 2

Figure 5-2: Nokia makes good use of the web with interactive “index cards” for each task.

Break Web Content into Topics and Subtopics

Consider breaking up your web content by

  • time or sequence
  • task
  • people
  • type of information
  • questions people ask

Divide Web Content by Time or Sequence

In many situations, time or sequence is a good way to organize information: something happens first, then something else, and so on. Figure 5-3, from Bank of America, shows a pathway page to a series of short articles on buying a home. Just scanning down the article titles (the links) gives prospective home buyers a sense of the tasks involved and the sequence they come in.

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Figure 5-3: Organizing information in a time sequence is often the logical way to break a large topic into useful pieces.

Divide Web Content by Task

When you are putting task-based information on a web site, realize that, in almost all cases, a site visitor is looking for information on only one of what may be many tasks that your product lets users do.

Breaking up task-based information into a single web page for each task is the best way to help web users get just the content they need. Of course, you also need a good search engine and a good navigation structure to allow your site visitors to quickly find the right web page.

Figures 5-4 and 5-5, from the Canadian version of Intuit’s QuickBooks, show how some companies are breaking up their online manuals into a database of separate articles on different tasks. The first screen invites you to search by keywords, start down a navigation path, or choose one of the most frequently asked questions. When you get to the information pages, you get just the article on your specific need.

figure 4

Figure 5-4: A database of articles with good search and navigation is a good model for the web.
figure 5

Figure 5-5: Each article is like a separate “index card” of information.

Divide Web Content by People

Another useful way to break up your web content is to consider who is going to use the information.

Separating information for different site visitors may work well at many levels within a site. The Nokia and Intuit examples earlier in this chapter ask people to self-identify by the product for which they want help. That’s typical of support and troubleshooting information on sites that support many products.

On some web sites, information for different people is totally separate and the site helps people self-identify right on the home page. Figure 5-6, from The Pension Service in the U. K., shows how one site helps its web users start down paths that are relevant to their different needs.

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Figure 5-6 Having separate sections for different user types (different personas) makes sense for some sites, but only if people will easily identify which user type to choose.

Breaking up information by user types works, however, only if people will be able to quickly and clearly self-identify into the right group. If they have to stop and think about which link to choose-or if they are likely to start down a wrong path-dividing the information by user type may be more frustrating than helpful.

Consider also whether some people will feel excluded if you divide information by user type. They may feel excluded if they do not see themselves in any of your user types. Even if they find a relevant user type, they may think you are excluding them from information they may want because that information is under a different user type.

If people are likely to want information you have under different user types, make it clear and easy for them to move between different versions or different levels of related information. For example, Figure 5-7 shows how the U. S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) lets people move easily between articles written for the general public and articles on the same topic in more technical detail and more technical language aimed at health care professionals.

figure 7

Figure 5-7 Separating information into general and technical articles may work well. If some site visitors want both, make it obvious how to move from one to the other.

The NCI folks learned in usability testing that patients and their families liked starting with the general information in lay language, but they also wanted access to the more technical information when they felt ready for it.

Divide Web Content by Type of Information

“How do I …?” defines one big set of questions people come to web sites to ask. “How do I …?” questions are about tasks or procedures. People want the information as step-by-step instructions.

“Can I …?” “May I …?” “Must I …?” “Why should I …?” and “What do I need to know about …?” define another big set of questions. These questions are about rules, policies, concepts, and facts. People want the information as questions and answers or clear chunks of facts with good headings.

In many cases, you have both “can I” and “how to” information about the same topic. You have policies and procedures. Your site visitors may know the “can I” and need the “how to.” They may know the “how to” and need the “can I” for a specific situation. Answer the different types of questions on separate, linked pages or on separate sections of the same page.

Figures 5-8 and 5-9 show how the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, has separate, but linked, pages on facts about enrolling (entrance requirements) and the process of enrolling.

figure 8

Figure 5-8 Information that answers the question “Am I eligible?” is separate from, and linked to, information on “How do I enroll?”
figure 9

Figure 5-9 Separate, linked pages are a good way to organize related web content while keeping each web page short and succinct.

Divide Web Content by Questions People Ask

People come to web sites with questions, so using questions and answers may help people find what they need.

As you write questions, match the way that people would ask the question. You want to help them quickly recognize the question as the place to get the information they need. In fact, an advantage of using questions is that if users come with only a vague sense of what they want, they may recognize a question even if they had not thought of those specific words.

Figure 5-10, from Briggs and Stratton, a company that sells engines and other machinery, shows how one company organizes its customer support by topic, product, and questions.

figure 10

Figure 5-10 Databases of questions organized by users’ topics are a useful part of many web sites.

Read part 2 of Ginny’s chapter on "Breaking up Large Documents" from her book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works.

About the Author

Ginny Redish helps clients and colleagues with content strategy, information design, plain language, usability, and writing for the web, including writing for social media and for the small screens of tablets and smart phones. Ginny’s book, Letting Go of the Words, easily makes our Top 3 all time list of must-have books for your resource library. Follow her on Twitter @GinnyRedish.