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Usability: Close Encounters with the RSS Feed

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My first encounter with the concept of “usability” came with writing titles for my blog posts. I had started my blog on creative writing craft last October, and had been happily posting away rather oblivious to the “feed” that Blogger was broadcasting to the rest of the world. Then, recently, I learned that a writer friend had put my blog link into her blog’s sidebar. So, after writing my own blog post for the day, I went to take a look. I should mention here that my new post was entitled, “What Prose Writers Should Consider When Reaching for that Metaphor.” Okay, a bit long, I remember thinking, but reasonably apt. So, I got to my friend’s blog, and — sure enough — there was my own blog listed, Kim’s Craft Blog, prominently displayed on my friend’s sidebar. Imagine my surprise, though, when I saw what was coming through beneath only the following three-word heading on the RSS feed: “What Prose Writers…”

Oh no, I thought. My blog title and the first three lines of my new post headline, when taken together, conveyed absolutely no information – either about my blog or the subject of my post. In fact, the whole entry sounded more like crafters asking questions. The rest of the day, I imagined a group of knitters sitting around, their needles clicking, asking, “What prose writers? What prose writers?” – as if they were discussing what to read at their next book group. I had just learned the first rule of text usability on the web: That you have to be very careful writing titles, headlines, descriptions, and other so-called “microcontent,” because information on the Internet is often displayed out of context, and is frequently cut off to just the first three or four words coming over an RSS feed.

Jakob Nielsen, the guru in this area, has a wonderful quotation on his website. “On the web,” he says, “usability is a necessary condition for survival.” And he isn’t kidding. If people can’t tell from your titles, descriptions, and headlines what you are writing about, then there’s absolutely no chance they’ll click on your work and read it. It was too late to change the name of my blog. But I did add the words “Fiction, Memoir, and Creative Writing” to my title, to get me out of the knitting section. And I revised the headline of my post to convey maximum subject information in the first three words. The post’s new title is, “Metaphor & Simile: What Prose Writers Should Think About When Reaching For That Comparison.” On the RSS feed, you now get the words "Craft," "Metaphor," and "Simile," which even taken out of context readers will probably surmise means that I’m writing about creative writing craft and comparisons, and not about crewel work and book groups.

The good news for us writers is that there is no longer any need to stumble around reinventing the wheel the way I did. A lot of research has been done about how information is transmitted and consumed on the web, and much of it is available on Jakob Nielsen’s website. Nielsen also has two books, available on Amazon, Designing Web Usability (1999) and Prioritizing Web Usability (2006). Another book, Eyetracking Web Usability (with Kara Pernice) is due out in August 2009 and is available for pre-ordering. While Nielsen’s work is geared mainly to web designers and online publishers, all writers today need at least passing familiarity with usability concepts. Even if you aren’t blogging or writing content specifically for the web, chances are that — if you are a writer — your work will eventually turn up on a Kindle, on the website of a print journal or newspaper, or in an online archive for a literary journal. There are many ways for your work to make it onto the Internet, and those ways are only going to expand in coming years. And being alert to the “usability” of your headlines, titles and descriptions may mean the difference between someone clicking on your work and reading it, or passing it over.

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