Blog: Content that makes you happy

User testing your web content leads to happiness

At UXNZ, Lou Rosenfeld spoke about user testing his books

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the UX New Zealand 2015 Conference in Wellington. It was great to be in a room of like-minded people, who place real customers at the centre of their thinking and approach to work. At the Conference, it was clear that UX professionals are disproportionately happy in their work.

One of the Conference highlights for me was the opening speech by legend US information architect and publisher, Lou Rosenfeld. He talked about how he came up with the design and layout for the books his company publishes. Quite simply, he took his books out and tested them with real people. He wanted to learn whether he could make an age-old product like a hardcopy book easier to use. Turns out you can.

His testing gave him insights into how people actually use technical books. For example, he discovered that people engaged more with books that started with a short section on how to use the book and what it covered—a more detailed guide to the content than a simple table of contents. He also discovered that the back cover was largely ignored. These discoveries, and more, heavily shaped the book design his company still uses for all its books today.

Saving your website, one section at a time

Savvy digital teams these days often test the navigation and design of a prototype website (or app) with real customers. What they learn helps them design a product that is easier to use. But all too often, long after go-live, budgets dry up and user testing stops.

We all know that a big part of the usability of your website is the usability of the actual content. Web writers can learn so much about how to fix a section of their site by testing the content out with a small group of real users.

“I don’t have the time or money for that” I hear you say. Well I say keep it simple and practical — even small scale user testing is valuable. I highly recommend getting into the swing of testing your content in small batches and often.

Just 30 minutes one-on-one with 5 people can highlight exactly how to fix problem content. You’ll learn more than you ever could in a meeting with 5 colleagues, trying to guess and agree on why a section is performing poorly.

You can test any type of content — web and intranet pages, technical manuals, online help files, documents and books. 

How to user test your web content without a budget

Pick a critical section of your site that you know is not working, but you’re not sure why. To some degree, site analytics will confirm if the right people are finding and staying on these pages.

Start by listing the type of people this section targets. Be as precise as you can. Try and avoid saying ‘everyone’ or ‘the public’. Who exactly is this particular section for? New passport applicants? First-time breastfeeding mothers? Local recreational fishers? Inbound travellers? Marriage celebrants?

Find 5 people who best match the description. Ask them for their help. Where practical, visit them or invite them to your office.

Your objective is to observe how they use your content, without directing them at all.

  1. Can they find the right page on the menu easily?
  2. Can they find it using Google? What words did they use to search?
  3. Can they get a sense of what each page is about after 3 seconds?
  4. Can they explain what the section is about after reading it once?
  5. Can they explain what choices or actions they have to take, if any?
  6. Can they complete an online form accurately, if any?

After observing them, ask direct questions to get the rest of the story.

  1. Is the content in the right format for them? (HTML, PDF, form, video, etc)
  2. Which parts were difficult to understand and why?
  3. Which info was redundant?
  4. What info was missing?
  5. Does the content flow or hang together as they expect?
  6. What barriers did they encounter?

Take what you learn to make your content more useful and usable. Share your insights with site designers, developers and other writers.

On the web, your audience can feel invisible. You are writing for a bunch of people you typically never meet. 

Regular user testing gets you out into the world and connecting with real people. You'll gain personal satisfaction and insights galore. You’ll meet the people who appreciate your work. And with their help, you can improve their experience. That feels good and right.

Happy you. Happy customers.

November special: Register 5 people for the Diploma in Web Content and get 25% off

November 04, 2015


grammar ›

Grammar: If I were the only editor in the world

Hey Rachel,

I really found your list helpful. However, one culprit needs to be exposed. Was-were. The only thing I remember learning as a clue was: 'if' demands a 'were'. Could you comment on the rules?



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Hi PeruSuz

Good to hear from you with this classic question. 

Old grammar rules stick in our minds like chewing gum in the hair. The rule you remember is no longer a rule (perhaps it never was) but a choice. I tend to use ‘were’ out of habit myself, but 'was' is now more than acceptable—it’s the norm. The Style Manual (Commonwealth of Australia 2002 edition) explains a logical flaw in the original rule, and says:

In Australian English the ‘were’ subjunctive is falling into disuse, replaced by ‘was’ for ordinary purposes. This then makes the ‘were’ subjunctive a distinctly formal choice in terms of style.

I love the Australian Style Manual for its clarity, layout and index, and because it’s up to date. It’s worth noting that the Yahoo Style GuideEconomist Style Guide and Fit to Print don’t even bother to mention this rule—it’s a non-issue. 

That’s the way it happens! The first grammar rules we learn are more than likely unreliable even at the time, but they stick tight in our brains like old chewing gum. 

So we can carry on using were after if, but have no reason to blame others for using was. It's annoying, isn't it? 

Best wishes


- - -

Image by Jared Eberhardt, CC BY-SA 2.0. "I smashed gum into his hair in the hot tub and it sort of melted to his scalp where my dad had to shave it out.

Writing tip: Editing web content

Deep in the Diploma of Web Content lies a nifty little course on Editing Web Content. This one is crucial, because research shows that editing content correctly can double the usability of a web site.

Editing is always a step-by-step process. And always you start by asking the big questions, such as:

  • Is this web page really necessary?
  • What is this page for? 
  • Who needs it?
  • Is the same information on another page?
  • What do you want people to do after reading this page?
At work when the pressure’s on, what do you do? You apply the 80:20 principle: you skip to a simple Contented system that will fix the majority of problems very fast.

Usability rockets when you focus on four actions with maximum impact:
  1. Edit headlines
  2. Edit the first sentence into a summary
  3. Edit hyperlink-text
  4. Edit all text into plain language.
In the Editing Web Content course you’ll see these four skills in action, with plenty of before-and-after examples. Provided you have completed the other courses in the Diploma in Web Content, hey presto! Everything makes sense. You’ll instantly see what to do, and you can expect to make an immediate impact on sub-standard web content.

Sometimes you need to apply more rigorous quality testing. Then you’ll use our 10 brilliant QA tests, which are demonstrated in the same course.

Editing Web Content is part of the Diploma in Web Content
September 05, 2015


web content ›

Interview with a web content pioneer

I was recently interviewed by Media Shower as part of their Expert Interview program.  I am always interested to see what comes out of my own mouth in an interview —

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August 30, 2015


A 30-second habit for business decisions: quick, instant review

LML Star Euro scooter in the Contented colours Do you feel overwhelmed by good advice for success in your business or professional life? It never stops coming. 

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How web accessibility suddenly became sexy and what it means for you

Accessibility Cinderella has been crowned by Silicon Valley Up to now web accessibility has been the poor little Cinderella of technology, dressed in rags, struggling, cleaning up other people's messes and getting not an ounce of thanks or glory. That just changed.

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July 08, 2015


How to sort lists alphabetically: even librarians use the easy way

Trinity College Library (c) Thomas Guignard FlickrYou're editing and and you come to a list that needs sorting into alphabetical order. Easy enough until you strike the mad Macs.  

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