So obvious that it’s invisible: Letting go of the words

Posted: September 23, 2010 in Uncategorized
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As I sit here reading Janice (Ginny) Redish’s book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, I find myself over and over saying “well, yeah. Duh.” The things Redish is suggesting, like that a website needs to have a search bar at the top of the page, or that links need to be able to stand alone, are so obvious to me. They should be obvious to everyone.

And then it hits me: They are. They’re so obvious, in fact, that people can’t see them. These are so obviously important that we miss them, and don’t even realize when we fail to do simple things like keeping a page uncluttered.

Take a look at Google’s home page. It’s so empty. Reddish would love it. I know I do. It’s easy to navigate, easy to use, and easy to look at. “Well, yeah. Duh.” But the fact of the matter is, without stopping to think about it, I wouldn’t know why it’s so good.

Bernadette Longo wrote that Technical Writing should be invisible (in Spurious Coin, among other places). Web design is a type of Technical Writing. When a site is designed right, the choices made are so obvious that we don’t even think about it. It’s not until we find something done wrong that we see it.

What Redish’s book does is articulate all those things that we all ‘know’ but don’t realize. Even just reading the table of contents is like a crash course in web usability. Aside from the chapter titles (Content!Content!Content!, Starting Well: Home Pages, Breaking Up Your Text With Headings, etc), which themselves are important lessons, the subheadings like “Think ahead. Match links and page titles” or “Make the Heading Levels Obvious” read like a list of commandments; if we just follow these, we’ll design great sites. But how do we do that? Well, that’s where the text comes in.

This book reminds me of two things in my teaching past. First is how I always conceived logic to make it easier for people to learn: Logic is just normal human thought, slowed down. Once people can slow themselves down and take things step by step, it all clicks into place.

Second, and more importantly, is a lecture I give sometimes about “Three Distances.” I originally gave this when talking about poster presentations, but I’ve found it works when explaining how to layout resumes or how to write memos just as well. Basically, the idea is that at any one of three distances (very broad, general, and up close), there should be self contained information that encourages, but does not require, that the person move closer. So a poster should have something visual that both represents the project and attracts people from the other side of the room. Then, when they’re within about 10 yards, they should be able to see more, and get the gist of the project. And up close and personal, they should be able to get even more information.

That’s how Reddish has laid out her book. The chapters are from across the room, so they tell you basically what you’re getting into. The section titles are your ten yards, giving you specific suggestions, but in a general way. And then the text itself is the up close and personal, telling you the details of how to do those things.

Reddish also knows to practice what she preaches. Early in the book, she writes “I know you want examples, so I’ve included lots of screen shots (It’s smart to want examples; it’s easier to understand a point if you can see it as well as read about it.)” (7). Aside from this being a great expansion of the section (Introducing Letting Go of the Words) and this particular subsection (It’s full of Examples), this quote shows Reddish doing exactly what she will later tell us to do: she’s focusing on her audience (chapter 2), she’s getting started with a clear indication of what she’s going to do in the rest of the book (chapter 3), she’s breaking up information (chapter 5), designing the book for easy use (chapter 7), writing like a conversation (chapters 2 and 8), and even breaking up her text with headings (chapter 10) and promising to use illustrations effectively (chapter 11). In other words, she’s very quickly going through everything in the book, but just giving the basics, so you can go to those places on your own if you want. Which is exactly what this book is suggesting websites should do.

Just as online “busy site visitors are trying to get to ‘the good stuff’ – to whatever they are looking for – as quickly as possible” (53), Redish has constant navigational aids throughout the book, including having the chapter on the left hand page, the subheading on the right hand page, and even numbering those so you know where in the chapter you are.

There’s a lot in this book that will help with usability. But not much that I’d want to quote the way I usually do in these little reviews. And why is that? Because everything is obvious. Which is also why it needs to be pointed out.

Well yeah. Duh.

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