Text Matters

I’ve noticed something lately. If you redesign your website, almost no one comments. If you make a cool graphic, almost no one comments. If you make a screencast or video, almost no one comments. But if you write a good post (which is 95% text), you get a ton of comments. I’ve seen this happen over and over. Why is that?

In the realm of content, an image can play a strong supporting role, as can a design or a video. But text is the lead actor. Text engages readers on a deeper level because text allows you to explore and communicate complex ideas in ways not possible with other mediums. In the world of content, text matters. A lot.

Design as Packaging for Content

Given the power of text, it’s ironic that the interaction designer, or that design, has been so highly esteemed in organizations. Where I work, interaction designers are key players on projects. They are gods, basically. But when designers leave content out of the user experience, as Karen McGrane says in her IA Institute presentation, designers are, for the most part, merely creating packaging around content.

Users aren’t seeking packaging. Users want content. Content is a major part of the user experience, if not the central aspect of the user experience. If you don’t believe this, Karen says, the next time you give a gift to someone, give the person a nice package with nothing in it and look at their reaction.

Karen McGrane's presenation at IA Summit.

Karen McGrane says excluding content from the user experience is like giving someone a nice box with no present inside. People don't want packaging -- they want content.

Have web development teams been duped all along about the over-importance of design over content? Content has been marginalized and overshadowed by css and jquery and ajax and image gradients and drop-down menus and all the design aspects around the content. But it’s the content that mainly matters to users, not design. The best strategy for design is to foreground the content, to be invisible so that content is the lead actor in the spotlight of the audience’s attention.

A Collective Delusion

If content matters so much, why don’t we place more importance on it? It seems like the mantra of tech comm for the past 40 years has been, “we do more than write.” I don’t know why we’ve been saying this. Text forms the bulk of most content. Text has the most power to influence and engage users. Writing good text content, particularly for websites, is challenging. Yet we trade our birthright for porridge and try to distance ourselves as much as possible from being classified as “writers.”

By the way, if you haven’t seen Karen’s presentation at the IA Institute, check it out. You’ll be pulled in by the way she debunks this “collective delusion,” as she calls it.

Her main argument is to persuade information architects that content is an integral part of the user experience and can’t be ignored. In all the wireframes and prototypes and designs and other plans for websites, include content. Make it a part of the plan from the beginning. Karen argues,

We as an [information architecture] industry have to stop thinking that our job is making wrappers. Our job is not making templates. Our job is not making buckets that people can put stuff into. Our job is making an experience. And that experience includes figuring out what the content is. So you’re going to start thinking beyond the template. Here’s what you’re going to do …. 1. stop acting like the content isn’t important. If somebody says oh no no no, we’re going to figure out the content later, if someone says user experience includes IA and IXD and Visual Design, call them out on it and say hey, I think content is part of the experience too.

Karen is right to include content in the user experience. How could anyone rationally exclude it? If no one else steps up to the plate to champion content, then the designer should advocate for it, because the designer is crafting the user experience, not just designing sleek-looking prototypes.

(By the way, she isn’t arguing that designers should function as the content strategist on projects, only that they shouldn’t get tricked by clients into thinking content is an unimportant, figure-out-later component. Designers already have enough to handle. Adding responsibility for content to their plates too is impractical.)

Writers as Content Strategists?

Why not put writers in charge of content? From my interactions with writers, writers are analytical thinkers who can assess large chunks of content and see the whole as well as the parts. Writers can create content where its absent; they understand consistency and semantics and connotations. They can read large amounts of content on a website and make connections about organization, structure, and messaging. Writers are thoughtful and strategic. They are content creators, not package makers.

If content serves as the core of site appeal, shouldn’t a content expert play a role in shaping and planning that content? In a response tweet today, Karen agrees. She says, “Tech comm people should be all over CS.”

Content of course includes more than text. It covers video, audio, and images too. But the kingpin of it all is text. Words. And this is the writer’s domain. Rather than trying to move beyond text, maybe we should embrace our strength.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • http://www.sdicorp.com Julio Vazquez

    Another great post, Tom. My view is slightly different in that whatever is presented on any particular web page is content, whether it be text, images, audio, or video. In fact, if the person responsible for the text has any say in the matter, they should be working to complete the user experience so that the text is not overwhelmed by the glitter on the edges.

    What really interests me is the first question you brought up. Why changes to non-textual portions of the deliverable not generate comments? I think it’s because those other artifacts are considered augmentations to the text and not necessarily the main thought of the post. The text gets the comments because it represents the main idea of the page.

    Does that seem like a reasonable explanation?

  • http://www.sdicorp.com/Resources/Blog/articleType/AuthorView/authorID/24/lkunz.aspx Larry Kunz

    Can we agree that both the gift and the wrapper are important? Certainly, as you say, content (text) matters. If it didn’t, I could fill up my site with lorem ipsum and still engage my audience.

    But the visual presentation matters too. Maybe not so much in your own case: this is a blog, so people come here expecting to read text. If you redesigned your site to use a less readable font, or to make the lines twice as long, people would notice.

    Content and visuals. For me it’s a yin-and-yang relationship.

  • Sherry Shadday

    Thank you, Tom, for bringing text/words back into the equation. I was beginning to feel like a dinosaur, one who felt like there should have been a funeral for “writing” per se, since it seems we are bombarded with how something should be presented and the concern about the design of the presentation, yet the actual content was pushed aside in favor of the delivery method. Those are important, to be sure, but, as you and Karen McGrane so aptly state, the whole point of the endeavor is content. And content, as you say, is nearly 100 percent of the time, text or text-based.

    Julio, apparently you, Tom, Karen, and I all agree that the other ingredients are there to support the text – the content, and not to overpower it. Copy writers, for the most part, have not misplaced that basic idea. Let’s hope that technical writers and content managers can again bring that fundamental understanding back to the surface for designers, managers, and customers.

  • http://www.sdicorp.com Julio Vazquez

    Yes, Sherry. I agree that the other parts of the presenatation are there to augment the text and shouldn’t overwhelm it. I also agree with Larry that the wrapper is important, otherwise the content will get quickly bypassed, especially on the web.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to go overboard in designing that wrapper to the exclusion of the text. 😀

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  • Anne Sandstrom

    I’ve always said that when you’re looking for a solution to a problem, or how to do something, you don’t give a rat’s rear end if it’s presented to you on a rumpled cocktail napkin or a silver platter.

    As a profession, (tech writing) we’re pretty good at pointing out flaws in applications and web sites. But we have yet to make a dent in everyone’s perception of help (in whatever form) as not helpful.

    Honestly, does anyone like reading documentation? No. Not even me. Especially not me. (Open box. Put parts to assemble in one pile, instructions in another, probably under box.)

    IMHO, one of our biggest issues (and I don’t have the solution) is that many people can have a certain amount of success figuring things out faster than they can slog through the doc. It’s like someone who can figure out a piece of music by ear faster and with less frustration than they can sight read.

    When I figure out how to get past all that, I’ll let you know.

  • Brandon D.

    This is a very good point. Do you have any recommendation on further reading/studying in regards to CS?

  • http://Www.McCulley-Cuppan.com Jessica Mahajan

    The package of the text is critical to understanding the content, but too often I’ve seen people so focused on the package that they ignore the content. They worry about every comma and the width of every line in a table, thinking the data or text will speak for itself without providing proper context.

    Professional communicators are knowledge managers, bringing their experience in to “create content where it is absent”. That’s their value.

  • Gary Phillips

    It is said that a picture may be worth ‘one thousand words’, but the key is what are those words going to convey and what effect will the intent of word choice have on the end user’s experience. That is what I think content is all about, but then again I am just starting my Masters Professional Writing (MPW) online at Chatham University, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the delivery, content, and style of your pod casts so far. More later and many thanks, Gary

    Why, lack of response when graphic content is updated might be akin to the ‘one thousand words’ picture scenario. Some might notice and like it, others might be oblivious, content hungry fiends, and just be contented with the content.

    Your blog site is professional, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing. Like your pod casts, both say come on in and join the conversation. gp

  • http://karenmcgrane.com/ Karen McGrane

    I got into this business through tech comm, and many of the principles that I apply to user-centered design came from knowing how to write for a reader. People with a tech comm background have a lot to offer the growing field of content strategy, and I hope we hear from more of them.

    In related news, this comic is not funny. Because it’s true:

  • http://WriteWithPersonality.com Andrea Wenger

    Excellent post, Tom. Here’s why I think technical communicators say, “we do more than write”: Most people think that writing is easy and technology is hard. Technical communicators think technology is easy and writing is hard. Or, perhaps more to the point, writing about technology, so that customers can understand how to use the technology, is hard. Before we can write about technology, we first have to understand and use technology. Then, we call on our sympathetic imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the customer, and tell the story about the technology from the customer’s point of view. This is part of the process of writing, of course, but it doesn’t involve putting words on paper (or pixels on computer screens). It’s thinking, planning, organizing, and understanding in anticipation of writing. Then comes the actual task of stringing words into sentences and paragraphs that are both accurate and readable.

    Communication is a dialogue between the writer and the reader. The most important part of what we do happens in the mind of the customer. It takes a skilled professional to provide the desired customer experience. Unfortunately, most businesses simply don’t understand that. (Maybe that’s our fault, because we’re professional communicators, yet we haven’t been communicating effectively enough to sell our value.) Businesses continue to think that technical writing is just stringing words together. We continue to insist, “we do more than write” because they define writing differently than we do.


    I am agree with the above post “Text Matters” that says If you redesign your website, almost no one comments. If you make a cool graphic, almost no one comments. If you make a screencast or video, almost no one comments. But if you write a good post (which is 95% text), you get a ton of comments.
    The simple reason for this is that people are rigid in nature. they look for what is required for a time being and then forget everything. People comment for their benifits. they get a lot by striking in keyword rather then appreciating the contents of the multimedia embedded.

  • http://www.vanarsdall-infodesign.com Eddie VanArsdall

    My team strives for design and content that complement each other. We place emphasis on useful content but use a simple, elegant design to try and enhance the overall user experience.

    That said, it’s content that attracts me to blog posts and inspires me to comment. I read certain blogs because I appreciate the writer’s voice and value the writer’s opinion.

    Present company included. :-)


  • Mel (Melanie)

    I agree with Eddie and others who have said that there has to be a balance between the design and the content.

    Tom – do you think that you (and probably others) get more comments on posts as opposed to Web site changes is that it’s simply easier to comment on blog posts? They’re really set up to invite comments.

    Thanks; as usual, a thought-provoking post (and interesting comments…)

    Best regards to all,

  • http://www.waggeneredstrom.co.uk Arran Riddle

    I’m late to this thread but the one thing missing here, I think, is that different people have different brains. We all know people who respond more to visual content (images, infographics, video, graphic design) than others. Isn’t it true that a web page/app/blog etc will convey more, to more people, if relevant and appealing visual content is in the mix?

    Just calling out the danger of writers (like me) getting puffed up about the importance of good writing (which I do from time to time) over and above the esthetic and informative power of visuals.

    • http://www.sdicorp.com Julio Vazquez

      Hi Aaron,

      I think that the bottom line is that there’s a question of balance that needs to be struck. You can’t foresake text for graphics or just be text-heavy. You have to find the mix that conveys the message succinctly using both elements to appeal to all styles of learners (let’s add audio to the mix, too).

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