English articles, Top Tasks

The web is about words, not images

Forget image and video, forget sound. Text is what makes people reach the goal they came to the web for. Visitors scan web pages for text first. They look for relevant words for the task they are executing. If you want to hide something, put it in an image. If you want to make something prominent, put it in text.

Oh, yes, I do know that a good layout and well-chosen images and colour and illustration make the use of a website highly enjoyable. But, then again, that is exactly what layout and images are meant for in the first place. Pictures, moving images, video support the real action. Because it’s the words that lead us to what we came to do on the site.

The web is a text medium, and at the same time it is not a book. We don’t go to the web to read. We go to a web site to do something. The purpose of this task can be to read an article or a long text. But the task itself then was the search for the article, and the path of that search proceeds along words.

If we can’t find our way on a website, it is usually because the navigation isn’t clear, isn’t unequivocal, is confusing. And because images distract.

On the home page of an Intranet where we executed a task management project three links lead to the staff list of the organisation, three links with this text:

  • Staff Excel list
  • Telephone lists (plural!)
  • Intranet directory

The first two were text links, the latter was a clickable graphical button. All three lead to different places and results. Try finding the right colleague for the problem you have to solve.

Strong websites make you see in a glimpse where to go next. In strong websites, you find immediately what you are looking for. In strong websites, the mouse movements are self-confident. Have a look at the speech of Gerry McGovern “Manage the Task, not the Content” to understand – it’s worth the full 30 minutes.

Dozens of tests demonstrated that words make stronger links than images. Put the words in a clear links, make an explicit button, put them in a readable navigation, and the visitor will find the way naturally.

There are plenty of testing tools to find the right words, giving you hard fact on which word or image or link performs better. Testing and measuring delivers evidence, preventing discussions about opinions in the team and the organisation.

Too many writers are in love with what they write. Taking out words, shortening texts is hard, but essential. (have I been too long on this one, should I reread and shorten?)

On the web, we spend only half the time to read compared to paper, they say. Here are a couple of tricks:

  • halve your text
  • take your sentence, and turn it upside down
  • put the two most important words in front

This is vitally important for navigation, links, titles, lists, for all texts on the path to the task. Task oriented writing can be learned. And words can be tested.

Task management starts with the words that stand out on the home page, the words that you notice immediately, and that make the task doable on the homepage if possible. Tiny tasks are accessible through precise and unambiguous headings and categories.

Words drive the internet. Images are second class, serving the words at most. The internet is a text medium.


About Toon Lowette

Customer is not king on the internet, he is dictator. Online services are successful if they allow the customer to do what he came for efficiently and without confusion. Toon Lowette is online publishing consultant in the Customer Carewords network of Gerry McGovern. Task management is the central issue. We teach websites to manage the task, not the content, not the technology. We teach websites to become relentlessly customer centric.

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