National Partnership for Reinventing Government

Table of Contents

Chapter 5


Chapter Four
The Internet

"For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three."

- Alice Kahn

The lack of a Web page is far more obvious and potentially embarrassing than the lack of an e-mail address. The Web is more like TV than e-mail. At first glance, the Web looks like a tool for untargeted, mass distribution. However, the Internet is a powerful research tool for the media.

It is crucial that your Web site maintain a consistent message and identity. Maintain and update it on a daily basis. Make it accessible to customers with cutting-edge technology like PDAs-Personal Digital Assistants, cell phones, and pagers that offer Web access. And, make it accessible to all. That means incorporating features to provide access to the hearing and visually impaired, and the learning disabled.

There are no "fixed" deadlines in the Internet-the information can change minute by minute. The possibilities for using the Internet are seemingly endless. Instead of a media event, you might want to try a web-cast announcement. Your agency representative can be in the middle of Iowa and the media reporters and writers can be anywhere in the country, but they can interact online or have an Internet chat. The Internet gives you the possibilities of new tools for reporters-Web-based press kits, Web casts, and digital information available online. Tomorrow will see more audio and video streaming on the Web as broad banding becomes more common.

Writing for the Web: Tricks of the Trade

On the Web, you have about eight seconds to capture your reader. Great information isn't enough. Glitzy graphics won't do it. And, hypertext-at its worst-provides appealing distractions that tempt your readers to move on. So, how can you make your Web pages alluring, attractive, and easy-to-read?
  • Design for easy scanning.
  • Provide visual navigation and accessibility aids.
  • Be concise.
  • Convey credibility.

How We Read Web Pages

To design Web pages that attract and keep customers, you have to understand that we read Web pages differently than we read paper.

  • Reading rates slow by 25 to 40 percent on the Web.
  • The monitor's flicker causes eyestrain.
  • Almost 80 percent of Web readers scan Web text. That means only 20 percent read every word.
  • Readers scan a site for only about 10 seconds before they move on.
Design for easy scanning. Do whatever you can to attract and keep your customers coming back to your Web site for more.
  • Tips for attracting and keeping your customers:
  • Make your fonts legible. Sans serif fonts are, in most cases, the best choice for publishing chunks of text on the Web. Letters look different on the computer screen than they do on paper. People usually don't read letter-by-letter as much as they recognize words by their shape. For example, a word typed in all capitals looks like a rectangle, which slows your reader down.

On paper, serif fonts, which have both thick and thin lines, increase legibility based on shape recognition. They also guide the eye between letters on paper. But on the monitor, serifs may cause letters to appear as blobs or make them look like they're running into each other.

  • The smaller the type, the more important it is to use sans serif fonts.
  • Italics decrease legibility; use them sparingly.
  • Use serif fonts on articles that will be printed to be read.
  • Dark type on a light background reads and prints much better than light type on dark.
  • Writing on pictures or textures stands out when it's large and bold (check out magazine covers for ideas).
  • Verdana, Arial, and Helvetica are good sans serif choices for monitors. Georgia, Times New Roman, and Times are good choices for serif fonts.
  • Remember that browser settings, whether altered by the user or not, will determine what the user ultimately sees.
  • Use the journalist's tool: The inverted pyramid. Journalists sell their content by bringing the conclusion to the top of the story. Although this may sound upside-down, it will work for the Web.

Web readers only give you a few seconds to persuade them that you've got what they're looking for. The inverted pyramid structure is the perfect device to grab readers who are looking for factual content.

Shape an inverted pyramid by starting with your conclusion and building down to the background information. Better still, link to detailed and background information. Web readers will pursue what they want. That's why it's called surfing.

  • Keep line lengths short. Don't make your Web lines longer than 40 to 60 characters. Keep in mind that it's hard to read from a monitor. Font size on the screen should be a bit larger than what you might choose for paper publishing.
  • Use headlines and subheads to break up your text. A good headline or subhead is brief, simple, and meaningful. Web surfers can come to your site from many different directions, particularly when they are using a search tool to look for key words. Thus, each page on your site should carry a meaningful headline-one that can stand alone out of the context of the rest of your pages.

Don't be overly clever or use puns when you're writing headlines. Users could misunderstand your topic.

  • Use bullets and numbered lists. They're easier to read and scan. The format helps you more concisely shape your content. Numbered lists help your readers pinpoint the next step. When you bury the information in a paragraph, your readers get frustrated.
  • Highlight key words. If you highlight key words, you'll help your readers scan more efficiently. Use a color-reserve blue for links-or simply use a bold face font. Remember, only 20percent of Web readers read every word.
  • Provide visual navigation and accessibility aids. The Web is a visual medium. Graphics and words work together, and the reader uses both to navigate. Experienced surfers expect a colored bar at the top or left of the page will have links to key sections of the site. Although it's common that the center of the page will attract attention first, most of your readers will instinctively look to the top and side for navigational cues.
    • Don't put more than three carefully chosen words in buttons or text hyperlinks.
    • If you can't succinctly describe an area of your site, break it down differently.
    • Don't squeeze jargon and abbreviations into small spaces. If your readers don't know what it is, they won't use it.
    • Don't use icons alone; use them only as supplements to a hyperlink.
    • Use hyperlinks within text blocks carefully. They may tempt your reader away from the text flow. Consider a section of links in a block by themselves where they may also be easier for your reader to find again later.
    • Group hyperlinks when you have a lot of them. Make these groups visually distinct.
    • Use alt tags with all buttons and graphics.
    • Don't rely on colors for navigation.
    • Use graphics, but keep the file sizes small. Most Internet surfers have slow modem connections to the Web and won't wait for long screen downloads.

  • Be concise. Woman's Day magazine warns that you should be aware of the "Fatigue Factor." For most in our culture, it's a driving force. Research on Web readers shows they prefer lean text. In one study, most readers thought they were getting a greater amount of information from concisely written pages than from wordy pages, even when they weren't. Writing concisely will brand your page as one that is packed with content. Here's how:
    • Limit each paragraph to one idea.
    • Begin each with a topic sentence.
    • Use three or four sentences per paragraph.
    • Keep sentences short.
    • Use simple sentence structure.
    • Use plain language
    • Don't use passive sentences.
  • Chunk your content. Help your audiences find the information they seek more efficiently. Your readers who scan don't like to scroll through long Web pages. Chunk your information into meaningful pieces. Then:
    • Size each chunk to fit on a single screen that carries a meaningful headline.
    • Reduce word count by 50 percent when you edit print documents for the Web.
    • Chunk each page into a few paragraphs.
  • Just the facts, ma'am... Web readers want facts. Don't pollute your factual content with wordy embellishment. Take special care to avoid words and phrases that sound like marketing jargon.
  • Why rewrite something that's already on paper? All the evidence points to the inevitable: People won't read your page when it's wordy, full of fluff or jargon, or not chunked into meaningful pieces. Remember that people will enter your site from many different points. You can't expect Web readers to read your content in a linear fashion.
  • Convey Credibility. Web readers look for marks of credibility when scanning a Web page.

    Here's how you can be credible:

    • Make it clear who is publishing your Web site. Web readers are skeptical about content when they can't identify who is sponsoring it.
    • Provide your credentials. You can use a link to give this information.
    • Link to high-quality, credible sites that support your content. Readers sometimes like to see links to opposing points of view, as well. Many interpret this as objectivity on the part of the author.
And finally, use your professional judgement. You know when your audience and subject matter may make it appropriate to break the rules. Apply a bit of the "less is better" principle. Ask for feedback from clients and co-workers, and you'll be on your way to having a Web site that is alluring, attractive and easy-to-read.

Make Your Web Site Customer Friendly

  • Break your information up into small bites.
  • Label your Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) "How do I ...?" Most people assume their question will not be in the FAQ section.
  • Use common terms that people are familiar with. People think "I want to file a complaint," not "I want to file an incident report."
  • Less is more. It is better to have a main page with category links that direct folks down a path than to put everything you have on the front page.
  • The fewer clicks, the better. Don't make people search too much for what they want. If there is a logical progression, people will keep clicking. If they have to click more than four or five times in what seems a random manner, they will give up.
  • Personalize your information whenever possible. Using zip code-driven searches or other ways to make the information apply to the constituent drives home why the information/agency matters to them.
  • Be a station, not a destination. People are looking for information as part of a process. Often they aren't familiar with the structure of government. If they need to go to another agency (instead of yours), provide the link on your page. There is nothing worse than telling the customer, "It's not my department."
  • Put your most sought-after services on the front page. People really want to find the information or complete their task quickly-a biography of your commissioner gets in their way and frustrates them. Your customers shouldn't have to hunt for your information.
  • If you provide a public e-mail address and solicit comments or questions, be sure you have the time and resources to answer all of the inquiries you will undoubtedly receive.

Push versus Pull

Most traditional advertising and promotional media use a push system to deliver messages to potential customers. One example would be "This program is interrupted for an important message from ...". Direct mail appeals fill your mailbox daily. The Internet has push, technology too, but users can choose it or not. Ideally the Internet is a pull system, because you attract Web surfers to your home page. If you get too pushy, by sending unsolicited e-mail, for example, it will earn you a bad reputation.


There are some special rules that apply to communicating on the Internet. The most important is to remember that you are communicating with real people, not a computer. Don't spam-that is don't send unsolicited e-mail. Remember that the Internet is a pull system, where customers request information, rather than one where you send them information without being asked. A wise person once suggested you treat the Internet like a foreign culture-study it for a month or more, as an anthropologist would, before you participate.

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