Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How To Format Online Content For Maximum Legibility: Chunking Information

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If you want to significantly improve the accessibility of your content while providing an easy way for your readers to scan your information rapidly, you probably need to stop and rethink about your approach to formatting text-based content online.

Making your content scannable is one of the most critical formatting tasks required to achieve great accessibility and a clean and legible layout of your content.

Photo credit: Melodi T

Assuming you are already following Robin Good's advice for maximum line length and other key content components you need now to add to your baggage of web writing and communication skills the ability to do effective chunking.

Chunking is a method of presenting information which splits concepts into small pieces or "chunks" of information to make reading and understanding faster and easier.

Chunking is especially useful for material presented on the web because readers tend to scan for specific information on a web page rather than read the page sequentially.

Chunked content usually contains:

  • bulleted lists
  • short subheadings
  • short sentences with one or two ideas per sentence
  • short paragraphs, even one-sentence paragraphs
  • easily scannable text, with bolding of key phrases
  • inline graphics to guide the eyes or illustrate points which would normally require more words

But how to put this into practice?

Here a few basic recommendations for beginners and advanced online publishers, that, as you will see, mark and differentiate good, professionally formatted and highly accessible content online from the average blog or news site.

Photo credit: Oliver Woelfl

Many people ask me how they can improve the usability and accessibility of their online content. While there are many factors affecting these, including page layout, margins, typography, letter size and line length, there are some, like chunking, that are rarely paid serious attention as they are not part of our traditional basket of accessibility enhancers.

The mainstream print and book publishing industries, overwhelmed by economic and competitive pricing concerns has long had to forget that space on a page is indeed a variable which can be used to increase legibility and to enhance the user experience.

I am amazed in fact at the number of new books I receive for review which are still formatted with basically no spacing at all among paragraphs, while cramping as much content as possible in the least number of physical pages. What amazes me even more, is that there are still individuals who want to read this stuff!

Happily, this is not the norm everywhere and some publishing houses are waking up to the new reading modalities awoken by ever more present new web reading habits.

As most of you, already well know, reading on the web, does not take place in the same way that we have been accustomed to read something in print.

What are the differences between designing content for print vs the web?

a) On the web, 80% of my readers, come from search engines like Google, which have suggested to them that I have on my site something that fulfills their specific need. That is, this people are searching for somethign specific, and Google or another major search engine has suggested to them an article on my site that may satisfy their query.

b) As a consequence, readers that come to my site and are in search of something specific, will not positively read my article from beginning to end, but will "scan" it, to check whether it does indeed contain the information they are badly looking for.

c) Scanning a page for information means that the reader's eye will not go through each line fo text you have written, from left to right and from top to bottom (that is if you are reading a Western language), but will instead scan the left text margin vertically, going from top to bottom and seeking "hook" points that give her the opportunity to rapidly understand what some of the sentences/paragraphs in that text are all about. In this way, the reader is able, in a fraction of the time it would have taken her to read the whole article, to tell whether the article contains the type of information she was looking for.

So, what would be the best way to help readers scanning your content pages for specific information to find as rapidly as possible what they are looking for?

Chunking up your content!

Here is how to do it:

1) Treat your content as if it was a "poem". Make each concept and idea stand out on their own instead of having very long text paragraphs. To do so, just like you can see in most printed poetry, paragraphs are separated by one or more empty lines. While you may feel initially uncomfortable with this, you will see by yourself how much more effective is to read content laid out this way.

2) Place an empty line in between each such paragraph. That will visually create the separate chunks that are so vital in helping the reader's eye scan the page while looking for relevant "hook" points. One empty line is all you need to separate paragraphs and make the text a lot more scannable.

3) Highlight key hook points in your content. As certain paragraphs within your content will contain more important information than others, bold the first few initial words of those paragraphs, to visually signal the reader of the relevance of that specific section. Obviously, the more you use this method, the more you will learn how to write paragraphs that start with appropriate, relevant keywords, to be later bolded.

4) Do not bold the first few words at the start of every paragraph or the hooks will cease to work. It is very important that the bolding of the first few words of some paragraphs is applied sparingly to the existing content or the effect will cancel itself out. Bolding every start of a paragraph would render all paragraphs equally important to the eye, making the scanning task much more demanding for the reader.

5) Create hook points also by using hyperlinks. To further enhance scannability and the accessibility of the content on that page you may also alternate the use of the bolding with the use of hyperlinking a few words at the start of a paragraph when there is an opportunity to provide a reference definition, or extra information on a niche topic or specific product/person. The hyperlinking of some words produces in fact a visual effect similar to the bolding, in that the text is colored differently than the normal text while it is also being underlined. Thus, a visual hook can be efficiently created also by using hyperlinks.

6) Never have a period and then a new sentence starting on the next line. Either you have a completed concept, and therefore the next para should be separated by an empty white line, or if the next sentence is a natural extension of the present one, you then need to place a period and start the new sentence ON THE SAME LINE as the preceding text. To summarize: when you place a period at the end of a sentence you have only the following two options for where to place the next sentence:

a) Leave an empty white line and start a new para.

b) Have the next sentence start on the same line after the period.

7) When using bulleted or numbered lists, bold the first few words of each item. One of the most common mistakes you can see when looking at popular content published online, is that it frequently repeats if not exaggerates on existing design problems. One of these is creating bulleted lists that read as badly as text content that has no breaks. What to do?

a) Space always with empty lines all of the bulleted points you have.

b) Bold the first few words of each bulleted item (unless you have very short lists as this one).

By following the above tips you can significantly increase the scanability, legibility and accessibility of your site content while giving it a cleaner and more sober, better organized and more professional look and feel.

Try for yourself and see the difference.

For more information, please see:

Article originally written by for MasterNewMedia and titled: How To Format Online Content For Maximum Legibility: Chunking Information

Readers' Comments    
2007-06-27 16:48:57

Katie Cummings

"Treat your content as if it was a "poem"."

This is a great way to think about it. I found the information on the differences between print and online copy very helpful. I tend to have a hard time with that one.

Thanks for the insight,

2007-06-27 10:10:03

Sean Woodruff

Robin, in light of this post, you may be interested to know that your feed into my Google Reader comes in as one continuous paragraph. It's the only one of the 50 or so I subscribe to to that does that.

Just thought you might like to know.

posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, June 27 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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