Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Volume Doesn't Matter

May 6, 2007

Despite what you’ve read, the volume of text on your page in and of itself has no impact on the success of your site. Statisticians will tell you otherwise, because they observe specific behaviors and perceive patterns and think that their perceptions easily translate into concrete conclusions. They’re usually wrong on this score. The fact is it doesn’t matter what volume of copy you have if the copy is well designed.

Much has been written regarding studies, theories, and statistics surrounding volume of copy on websites and what quantity of that copy gets read by site visitors. These articles are especially prone to cite what paths eyes tend follow through a page and what patterns result (cough, for their specific, anecdotal examples. Ahem). But I notice that these articles too often make the mistake of then offering conclusions that are either largely erroneous or have no relevance to design or business choices. This is because these articles are almost always written not by designers, but by statisticians of some sort. Fail.

As designers, it makes sense that we pay attention to these sorts of articles and evaluate how this information may serve our work. Of course, the most important part of my statement here is the evaluation part. Designers must question, evaluate, and discriminate. Always. We cannot simply gobble up whatever statistics are offered us and assume that they matter, or simply employ statistical data in the way that some statistician concludes. To do so is to be irresponsible.

Yet this is the sort of irresponsible behavior some would have us follow. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, they’re even trying to help. But designers know things others don’t know. We see things others don’t see. And we have to employ our insights, talents, and skills along with our requisite discrimination in our process regardless of what conclusions others would present to us. Else we fail our mandate.

One case and point

Jakob Nielsen loves statistics, and not without good reason. But while his statistics are often valuable, his conclusions often miss the mark. In his latest article, he cites the stats his studies have revealed about the volume of words site visitors read. Aside from the fact that these statistics really have no relevance to business or to Web craft, he ends with this unfortunate and erroneous conclusion:

“…If you target a broader audience or have sales cycles that are shorter than 5 years, you'd be wise to put your word count on a strict diet.”

Rubbish.

Here are 2 things you need to learn now, and you mustn’t lose your grasp of these facts in the face of statistical idiocy:

  1. the volume of copy you have on your website or page has nothing to do with how much of the critical portions will be read, or with your company's resultant success
  2. the makeup and character of your audience has absolutely no bearing on advisable copy volume on your website.

So what does matter? Well, the very thing Jakob clearly cannot fathom (and never really has): design.

With regard to #1, the thing that does matter is that you have well-designed, powerful actionable and informational copy (in addition to whatever other copy you have on a page) so that visitors/users find and are compelled to follow your suggestions.

With regard to #2, in the face of a broad audience, what matters is that you have copy that addresses the likely ways in which different audiences with different motivations will want to consume your copy, or content as a whole—AND you understand how copy volume is best reconciled with your brand (yes, copy volume can be a factor in your brand’s character).

So whether your site readers read 20% or 98% of your copy, what matters is that your copy is designed so that they find and read the small portion of copy that really factors into your purpose or conversion aims.

Drawing conclusions is our job, and is based on contextual, relevant concerns that we discover and define in our design process.

As with any other situation it doesn’t matter how much you say on a Web page; it is what you say, how you say it, and how you organize what you say that matters. So clearly, it is design that matters. Not the volume. If you have 50,000 words on each page, you’ll do fine so long as the actionable and critical information copy is easily accessible and well designed—so long as the rest of the copy doesn’t detract from or interfere with this important copy. By the same token, you might have a very small volume of copy on a page, but if it is poorly designed and poorly written, it will be ineffective.

If you have a large volume of information to convey, know that many will only skim the copy, so make copy design choices with this in mind. Also know that some will not want to read it in the basic, linear way you’re presenting it, so make copy, filtering, and categorization design choices with this in mind. Also know that some visitors may even want to consume all portions of the content, so allow for this case, too. In every case, it is the design, not the volume, that matters.

Designers should know this; we have to because it is a designer’s responsibility to know how to employ data. As I’ve noted before, design is not the domain of statisticians. Just as we require that our clients give us problems, not solutions (design is not a process of taking and fulfilling orders, as if we were waiters in a restaurant), we must not allow statisticians to offer us conclusions. Drawing conclusions is our job, and is based on contextual, relevant concerns that we discover and define in our design process.

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