Breaking Up Large Documents for the Web – Part 2

by Janice (Ginny) Redish

This article is an excerpt from Ginny’s book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Click here to read part 1.

Deciding How Much To Put on One Web Page

We’ve been looking at how to break your web content into pieces-by time or sequence, by task, by people, by type of information, and by the different questions that people ask. Once you have the pieces, you have to decide how many topics, articles, questions, or pieces of information to put together on one web page.

One page or separate pages? When faced with that decision, ask yourself these questions:

  • How much do people want in one visit? How connected is the information?
  • Am I overloading my site visitors? How long is the web page?
  • What’s the download time?
  • Will people want to print? How much will they want to print?

How Much Do People Want in One Visit? How Connected Is the Information?

I see many web pages where topics are stacked together on one web page when they are answers to different questions that different people ask at different times. The topics fit together from the organization’s point of view, but the web user wants only one when visiting the site.

For example, you can see in Figure 5-11 that Dymocks, an Australian bookseller, has all of its customer service information in one file-one long web page. Whether you are looking for the company’s privacy policy, how to use its shopping basket, or whether you can return an item, you go to the same page. I’ve been in the Dymocks store in Sydney many times; it’s a wonderful bookshop. But this part of the web site doesn’t match most web users’ needs.

(Note, September 2009: Dymocks has changed their web site. It no longer has this page or this problem.)

figure 11
Figure 5-11: Very few, if any, site visitors want all of this long page. The topics go together only from the company’s point of view, not from the web user’s.

A page like this is built for the scenario, “Mario wants to read all of our customer support policies and procedures at one time.” That scenario doesn’t seem likely. It’s much more likely that site visitors will start conversations like the following with the site.

These site visitors each want only the answer to the one question they are asking. They don’t want to have to wade through other information to get to what they want.

From the web user’s point of view, a more useful design would be a pathway page with topics each leading to a much shorter page that covers just that topic-the way it is done by Powell’s of Portland, Oregon

figure 12
Figure 5-12: If each topic answers a different need, giving each topic its own page makes sense for web users.

Am I Overloading My Site Visitors? How Long Is the Web Page?

We’ve just seen when you should break up web pages that cover many different topics. A web page on one topic can also be too long. Consider again the example at the beginning of this chapter: the 32-page document on Weight Control and Diet. That’s just too much for any person to absorb at once.

Most people today do scroll vertically if the page layout indicates that the page continues. But they won’t scroll forever. Think of three or four scrolls’ worth as a maximum length for a web page.

To break up longer pages, use the guidelines earlier in this chapter to find a good way to group and divide the information into subtopics. That way, you can make a series of pages with a table of contents on a previous (pathway) page.

What’s the Download Time?

A third consideration in deciding between putting information together on one web page or separating it onto separate web pages is how long it will take for your site visitors to get what they need. Remember that many people still have slow connections and pay by the minute.

People are going to be annoyed if they wait a long time for a page that has much more than they need. On the other hand, if you break up the information onto many small pages and your visitors want all those pages, waiting for each one to load may be annoying. And the time between pages may interrupt their putting the information together in their heads.

So you have to think about the issue of download time together with the issues of how much of the information people want and how connected it is in their minds.

Will people want to print? How much will they want to print?

And the fourth question to think about in deciding between one page or separate pages is what people might want to print.

  • If people want just one section and have to print pages and pages to get it, they waste toner, paper, and time. That’s frustrating.
  • If the document is broken into pieces that are so small that people have to print several web pages in succession to get what they need, that’s also frustrating. They waste paper and time, if not toner-and it takes many clicks to finish the task.

So you have to consider how much people want in any particular visit to your web site.

If you have some people who want to print only a little, some who want to print more, and some who want to print an entire document, offer options. Figure 5-13 shows how the U. S. National Cancer Institute makes some of its content available.

figure 13
Figure 5-13: This web site, where sections of a document are separate web pages, offers people three printing options (as well as other options).

Read part 3 of this article.

About the Author

Ginny Redish helps clients and colleagues with content strategy, information design, plain language, usability, and writing for the web, including writing for social media and for the small screens of tablets and smart phones. Ginny’s book, Letting Go of the Words, easily makes our Top 3 all time list of must-have books for your resource library. Follow her on Twitter @GinnyRedish.

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