Communicate Clearly With Less Content

Too much content often hinders communication

Too much content often hinders communication.

I love content, but nothing gets me pumped more than cutting it. Crop. Delete. Remove. Archive. Why? Because the road to clear communication often leads to less content, not more.

The purpose of content is to communicate. For higher ed web professionals, it’s easy to lose sight of this. Many people are responsible for constantly creating content — new blog posts, twitter updates, event descriptions, landing pages, "related links." But how often do we consider whether our content is necessary or if it communicates clearly?

Does your content educate and inform or confuse and mislead?

Why Less Is (Often) More

The job of keeping a website up-to-date is daunting. Many respond to this charge by adding content — "feeding the beast." But new does not equal relevant, and what was useful yesterday may not be today. Keeping your website up-to-date means ensuring new and old content both communicate clearly.

For every webpage, paragraph, sentence, PDF, photo, video and link, ask yourself: Does this help my audience understand what I’m trying to communicate? If not, you should reconsider that content.

In addition to user comprehension, less content improves usability and findability. The more content you have, the harder it is for users to find what they need. Content that confuses or misleads — including duplicate and irrelevant content — is a barrier to user goals. And if users can’t easily navigate or search your site to find what they need, you both lose.

Also, consider that less content means less to manage. Every piece of content you create needs to be reviewed and measured to maintain value. Have you looked at the list of pages on your sitemap recently? Pretty scary, I know.

Cut the Clutter

Too often, people use content as a design tool rather than a communication tool. Common web team chatter includes: "Our web template requires a photo in the header. Just put a student photo there,” and "We can’t leave the sidebar blank, it looks funny — add some links." But that’s not design they’re talking about. And it’s not communication. It’s content. And it’s clutter.

Usability evangelist Jared Spool describes these scenarios in a recent blog post called Clutter.

Clutter is what happens when we fill a page with things the user doesn’t care about. Replace the useless stuff with links, copy, and content the users really want, and the page suddenly becomes uncluttered.

Content clutter takes many forms: outdated announcements, off-topic photos, irrelevant links, welcome and overview pages that contain redundant content. To cut the clutter, we need to put our communication goals first. Don’t just create content to fill up space, meet a deadline or stroke an ego. Create timely, purposeful content that communicates desired information.

Communicate Clearly and Simply

Steve Krug, in his book Don’t Make Me Think, highlights two of his favorite "needless" content examples: introductions and instructions. It’s true. I don’t need to be welcomed to your website or told what’s to follow — I can see it, thanks. I don’t need to be told how to browse, search and click on your website. And if I do, perhaps your website has other problems to consider.

When I look at most Web pages, I’m struck by the fact that most of the words I see are just taking up space, because no one is ever going to read them. And just by being there, all the extra words suggest that you may actually need to read them to understand what’s going on, which often makes pages seem more daunting than they actually are. (p. 45)

In Letting Go of the Words, Ginny Redish also hits on the need to be concise and direct. She advocates for simple, straightforward sentences: "Sometimes sentences are longer than necessary because the writer uses several words where one (or none) will do" (p. 187).

Your words should communicate so as to help users complete their tasks quickly. Consider the words you use and if you need them for clarity or readability. If not, cut ‘em without remorse. Don’t worry; I’ve got your back!

How well does your content communicate? What are the common forms of content clutter on your website?

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »

Comments

  1. communicating a idea with less words without loosing it’s soul is the challenge for any content developer.. well said Rick!

  2. Cathie Walker says:

    Thanks for this post, Rick. Working as a higher ed web content editor is challenging since we do love our big words in academia!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Up Your Web Site: Many college Web sites suffer from content clutter: things that viewers don’t care about, such as outdated announcements, off-topic photos, and [...]

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