Writing for a Usable Website

Writing for a Usable Website
Posted on 03/30/2016
CivicLive - Writing for a Usable Website

With the proliferation of easy-to-use content management systems, website management has largely migrated away from the IT department. This means that many organizations no longer rely on a webmaster to update the website, but it also means that more content is being published by people that may not have formal knowledge of Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines. Don’t despair – content optimization is very intuitive once you start breaking it down, and even if you keep a copy of The PC is Not a Typewriter on your bedside table, a little refresher never hurts.


The Starting Point

Your organization performed a review of the current site, looking in-depth at site analytics and holding several focus groups. They discovered the following:

  1. Your website has a mobile version but users still reported difficulty on mobile devices.
  2. There is a generally low level of engagement with written content.
  3. There have been several complaints from constituents with visual impairment.

While a site’s design and layout impact its usability, content authors shoulder most of the responsibility in the long term. With this in mind, let’s look at some good habits:


1. Mobile Optimization and Web Writing

Mobile traffic is on the rise, marking one of the greatest changes in user behavior since the internet was first introduced. However, writers still commonly structure their documents for traditional print publishing. Here are a few tips on how to write for the web:

  • Use bullet points. They are an acceptable way to present data because they allow people to scan quickly, regardless of which device they are using.
  • Use correct heading types and consistent content structure to facilitate rapid browsing. This also provides major benefits for search engine optimization and screen reader accessibility.
  • Use a consistent font and font size. This not only makes your pages more attractive, it helps those who rely on accessibility aids such as text magnifiers.
  • Keep information directly on the page whenever possible. In general, people do not like downloading separate documents. If you absolutely need to include a downloadable PDF or other document, make sure to explain exactly what it contains.

2. Content Engagement and Search Engine Optimization

The tips above will help you maintain an attractive, functional website, but they won’t drive engagement on their own. Modern internet users have so many avenues to find information, and if your organization wants to control its message, its website will need to be people’s first choice when they want information.


  • Keep content fresh. If your CMS offers scrolling banners for images and news items, make liberal use of them. Scrolling information helps you put more information right on your homepage without making it look cluttered.
  • Update your news section often, particularly if you work for local government. If your website does not contain information about recent or upcoming events and emergencies, people will go to other outlets.
  • Embed social media feeds and sharing tools onto the homepage. Make sure that all of your social media posts link back to the website.
  • Make all of your stories self-contained. Don’t assume that your users have read other stories on your website because many of them will be coming to your site via social media or search engines.

3. Accessibility for All

There are many accessibility aids out there, but they won’t make the web available to everyone all on their own – you will need to follow a few guidelines:


  • Screenreaders are unable to decipher text contained in images, so make absolutely sure that information is in the page’s body content.
  • Avoid using tables whenever possible because they are difficult for screenreaders to understand. If the data is tabular in nature, include proper headings for each column.
  • Always include an equivalent for any visual or auditory data. For instance, provide closed captioning or transcripts for videos and audio recordings, and provide descriptive alt text for all images.

Content management systems such as CivicLive’s SitePublish have been optimized to help you maintain accessibility standards, but good habits will help you stay ahead of the curve for years to come.


Closing Thoughts

SitePublish and other modern content management systems have interfaces similar to a word processor, so you don’t need to know any markup languages to structure your content correctly. Anyone with a little patience can start making positive changes. Most importantly, remember that you are helping people – don’t treat web optimization like a chore, treat it as a campaign.

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