Content Style Guide: Understanding Our Users

One of the best ways to ensure that our website is user-friendly is to follow industry best practices, keep the content focused on key user tasks, and keep our content up-to-date at all times.

Understanding Our Users

We have many different users with many different needs. They are:

  • Novice and expert users
  • Desktop and mobile users
  • Users with visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive impairments
  • Non-native English speakers
  • Users with different cultural expectations

As described in our Website Guiding Principles, we are deeply invested in ensuring a quality experience for all of these users. Above all, remember that our users are real people with real needs. They may be experienced and deeply engaged in the research process or they may be novices in search of “good enough” and easily frustrated and overwhelmed. Our users also come from a variety of diverse populations. Regardless, they are primarily using the library website to help get their work done.

An expansive body of knowledge generated by the fields of cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and user experience supports some basic, universal principles that can reliably inform every-day design and content decisions.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is the amount of information a person can process at a given time. Hick’s law states that every additional choice presented increases the time required to choose any option. Beyond additional time, there are other consequences:

An excess of choices can lead to fatigue and can make people feel dissatisfied with the experience, or even worse, abandon the process altogether. Not only do we feel mentally exhausted when we have to compare too many options, but also, once we’ve decided, we are often left over with a nagging feeling that they missed something important. – Nielsen Norman Group “Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice”

Although our instincts may be to offer an exhaustive list of options, lots of “just in case” content, and advanced features, we may be doing a disservice to the majority of our users who do not have preferences or advanced needs.

Want more? Read Abundance of Choice and Its Effect on Decision Making by Colleen Roller via UXmatters and Minimize Cognitive Load to Maximize Usability by Kathryn Whitenton via Nielsen Norman Group.

Reading Behavior

Users rarely read every word on a page. They scan looking for the piece of information they need or they skim to understand the gist. On average, users only read about 28% of words on a webpage. Writing that’s concise, scannable, and objective can result in a 124% improvement in usability.

Want more? Read Legibility, Readability, and Comprehension: Making Users Read Your Words by Jakob Nielsen via Nielsen Norman Group and GOV.UK content principles: conventions and research background.

Users with Disabilities

It is important that users with disabilities are able to access our content in an efficient manner. There is a broad spectrum of users to take into consideration but for our purposes, we can focus on users with blindness, color blindness, low vision, deafness, motor disabilities, and cognitive disabilities. See WebAIM’s Considering the User Perspective for more information about content and design considerations for these groups.

Assistive Technology

Some of the user groups listed above use special “assistive technology” to help navigate webpages. In particular, screen readers are commonly used to audibly read aloud the contents of a webpage or communicate it via refreshable braille display.

Sighted users are able to visually scan a webpage and process the information so they can jump directly to what they need. Assistive technology users, who cannot see the visual design, rely on screen reader software that reads out audible textual cues like headings, descriptive text, and link labels. They may also rely on their keyboard to navigate since a mouse is designed for visually pointing and clicking. Demo of a screen reader in action.

Screen reader users often navigate a webpage using the following techniques:

  • Use the tab key to jump to each element on a page for the screen reader to read through.
  • Pull up a list (or tab through) all the headings for the screen reader to read through.
  • Pull up a list (or tab through) all the links on a page for the screen reader to read through.
  • Ask their screen reader to read everything on the page from beginning to end (based on order of content in code which may not be the same as the visual display).

Tip: try navigating through a webpage using only your keyboard but no mouse. Even if you’re still looking at the page, you’ll see it’s not always possible to do everything you need to do or get to key content quickly.

Want more? Read Nielsen Norman Group report on accessibility that includes many visuals demonstrating assistive technology.

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Matthew Reidsma
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Guide content originally created by Suzanne Chapman for the University of Illinois Libraries. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons By 4.0 license.

  • Last Updated: Apr 17, 2024 11:25 AM
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