We start our tour of the elements that make up all our online communications with the medium we all take for granted – simple text. What is it good for? In which situations does it struggle? How is it best presented online?
What text is good for
Text is by far the most flexible and pervasive of all the media elements. When carefully composed, it is capable of conveying precise meaning.
In most circumstances (where it not integrated into a video or animation), text can be absorbed at the reader’s own pace, which reduces the stress for the reader in a learning context and makes it much easier for those who want to skim content or hunt down a particular piece of information.
When text is not so suitable
Text is not as expressive as speech, because it does not convey tone of voice. For this reason, text messages can be easily misinterpreted.
Without considerable skill on the part of the author, text is not great at describing the physical appearance of an object or person (use photos or illustrations instead), actual events (use video), layouts (use diagrams or screen grabs in the case of software), or complex processes (use diagrams or animations). Text is also not ideal for describing sounds (use audio!).
Optimising text for online delivery
Text is harder to read from a screen than it is from paper, partly because the resolution of the screen is so much lower (less dots per character) and also because the light is projected rather than reflected. With scrolling and paging, it is also much easier for the reader to lose their orientation within an online document.
With these points in mind, best practice suggests that you:
- Limit your word count to half of what it would be in print.
- Use clear, descriptive headings to separate sections.
- Keep sentences short.
- Cover only a single point in each paragraph.
- Use bulleted or numbered lists rather than present a series of related items as ordinary prose.
Be aware that, for the visually impaired, text can be read aloud by screen readers. To help screen readers work at their best, text should be formatted and displayed in accordance with the latest accessibility guidelines. In most cases this will be an issue for the person setting up the website rather than the author.
Combining text with other elements
As a verbal element, text combines well with visual elements but clashes badly with a second verbal element such as speech. So, text plus still images works well, whereas text plus speech causes all sorts of confusion and overload for the user. The brain cannot process two verbal inputs simultaneously, so the user has to block out one element (usually the speech because this is conveyed much more slowly than text) in order to concentrate on the other.
How text is represented online
Text is represented digitally as individual ASCII characters of one byte each. For this reason, text is by far the most bandwidth-friendly element.
Portions of a piece of text can be emboldened, italicised or underlined. As a general rule, underlining should be avoided as it implies that the text is a hyperlink.
Text can also be formatted in terms of point size, colour, font, spacing, column width and alignment, although these aspects of typography are now more normally handled through what is called a ‘cascading style sheet’ (CSS), set up by a designer, leaving the author to worry about the content. Typography has an important impact on legibility and usability and so determines much more than the style. The following general pointers will help:
- Constrain column width to 5″ (12cm) to reduce the eye strain involved in tracking back to the start of each new line.
- Left align paragraphs in most circumstances.
- Limit the use of text that is all capitals.
- Present body text at 10 or 12 point.
- Maintain a high contrast between text and background. In most cases, black on white is fine.
- Use fonts that are optimised for the screen.
Coming next: audio