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Even writers need to learn some usability doctrine, to make their text work for people who want to use it, before they actually read it. 

In fact, one trait that sets web writing apart from other forms of writing is that we often have to modify our style, organization, and content to make our text usable.

Some writers, like Linda Urban, have shifted the focus, so that although they continue to generate large texts, they also work to make products, sites, help systems, and cds more usable.

Writers and editors are becoming user advocates.

If you discover a site with helpful, more or less unbiased info on making your site, or your text, more usable, let me know.

Ask Tog

When I worked at Apple, Bruce Tognazzini proclaimed himself the user interface czar, and undertook to make sure that every program issuing from Cupertino would have the same (good) interface. He published a digest of his recommendations as Tog on Interface. Even though that was more than ten years ago, the book will make you laugh out loud.

The issues have changed since then, but his irreverent attitude still helps dispel the mumbo jumbo of a lot of user interface theory. Ask Tog is an occasional column and email newsletter that he publishes from the Nielsen Norman Group, where he now works. (In between, he was at Sun).

Enjoy the writing, and, once and a while, you'll get an idea of how you could improve your site, or your own prose.

Fucina Web

Antonio Volpon gives "Idee per forgiare siti accessibili e usabili" including interviews, guidelines, and articles. Bias: He interviewed us on web writing, and kindly translated our English into Italian.

IBM Ease of Use

Given their history, IBM had to prove that they could actually sympathize with users, and make their software and hardware, well, maybe not perfectly easy to use, but at least a lot friendlier than before. Good, business-wise advice, guidelines, tips on user-centered design.

It's very strange to hear Big Blue saying things like this:

"User Engineering (UE) is a significant evolutionary advancement in the process of developing offerings that satisfy and delight users, as well as the stakeholders who invest in bringing them to market."
Of course, the phrase does suggest what IBM used to do: manipulate the user. But the very idea that IBM would want to delight a user is…I don't know…a new century. And they're serious. They provide plenty of help aimed at software developers.


Nielsen Norman Group

For the latest usability research, some of which relates directly to text. The best sections veer off from the home page, to articles by Bruce Tognazzini and Jakob Nielsen.  Don Norman, the other principle, ran research at Apple for a while; he's written some landmark books on usability.  This consulting group, then, is a kind of Mount Rushmore of usability.

Usability First

This site gives you a complete tour of usability for the web. You get a good overview on almost every topic, plus comprehensive link lists, and old-fashioned bibliographies. There are only a few guidelines on writing. But the writing here is clear, practical, and useful.

Want to find out what some term like "breakdown analysis" really means? The glossary gives you more than the definition, showing you where the term fits, in a list of related terms. The site's hosted by Diamond Bullet Design, but they offer a real public service, with only a modest About Us page, linking to their commercial site.


Detailed guidelines for making sure that your web pages are usable. Good focus on accessibility for people with special needs. Most guidelines include comments, analysis of the evidence behind the guideline, and good examples. Very usable site! Created by the National Cancer Institute.

Usability Methods Toolbox

Built in 1997 and 1998, this site is still useful. James Hom put it up as part of his Masters Program at San Jose State, while he was also working with the Cisco usability team, one of the best in the business.

You'll get a complete analysis of each technique, tips on when to use it, and a bibliography with links to major sources on that topic. I count 40 major topics, from action research through cognitive walkthroughs to the famous Think Aloud protocol. Because the focus is on techniques, Hom only occasionally mentions text. But if you want your own little Masters Program, browse, print, and study.


Usability Professionals Association

If you want to learn usability, join up. Great local meetings, a valuable journal, and useful conferences.

Usable Web

Keith Instone created this resource, and he swears he will never update it. So what you get is a collection of what he himself calls "stale" resources on usability, human factors, user interface, and information architecture.

Most of the articles are still relevant, despite his disclaimer. Only one little section on writing. But if you want to learn more about usability, these links (with reasonable annotation) will get you started.


Jakob Nielsen's research on writing for the Web, published originally as a series of Alertboxes (columns and full-length articles about usability). For many years, Nielsen studied the reactions of visitors to the Sun site, drawing conclusions about how to write content for those engineers and managers. Most of what he says applies to other audiences, but occasionally you have to say, "Wait a sec, my visitors are totally different, and they seem to like it when I violate this guideline."

Since quitting Sun, Nielsen has done a lot of in-depth studies as part of his work with the Nielsen/Norman group. I particularly like his study on what journalists want from the PR sections of a site, and what makes an intranet useful. I would say that Nielsen's work is even better these days, and more applicable on a wide range of ecommerce, entertainment, and non-profit sites.

After you read these articles, browse the rest of the site, for valuable insights into the way people think and act when using the Web.


User Interface Engineering

Jared Spool's group comes up with startling conclusions, in its research on usability, interface design, content, and ecommerce; you may dispute their statistical validity, but you can't deny their ideas are intriguing. Sign up for the newsletter, because among the ads for upcoming events, you get digests of some of the most eye-opening studies of consumer behavior on the Web. Treasure the white papers.

Web Word

John Rhodes' occasional weblog on usability. Thoughtful reviews, fun rants, and some good thought about text as part of the user experience.


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