Three key media variables: time, attention and memory
Our book is not a quick read. In part because it stems from an academic thesis, we go into more depth than most business books. The area where we delve the deepest is called Media Determinism, a field pioneered by Marshall McCluhan and practiced by Father Walter Ong and others. Briefly, media determinism is based on the idea that what you can say and how you say it are determined by the medium you use. Our unique contribution to media determinism, such as it is, is to extend this concept to the notion of relevance. We have found that relevance determination is vastly different between print and Web media, and we explain this in detail in our book.
In our book, we describe a continuum of media–oral, print, Web, etc. Though all have their place in how we communicate, we focus on writing for Web. Most of the Web writing mistakes people make are not about such things as clarity or copy cleanliness. (Besides, there are great books out there that already cover these topics.) Most of the mistakes we find in our jobs relate to using the Web for things better left to the print medium, or using the Web as though it is just another variation of print. For example, it makes no sense to use the Web for long, detailed case studies. Web users don’t have the time or attention to read a lot of static content. In our tests, they almost always prefer to print this content out and study it offline.
That might seem like an obvious example, but there are many more subtle ways the Web differs from print. When we examine them, they all come down to three variables: time, attention and memory. Web users are usually pressed for time; they use the Web to find quick answers. Web users lack the attention span of a typical print user. Attention span varies depending on the application: Wikipedia users expect to linger longer than a Twitter user. But the Web is a short-attention-span medium compared to print. And Web users don’t engage as much of their memory as print users. If you can search for the data that backs up your point, there’s no reason to store it in your head.
I’ll talk about these three variables in a little more depth after the break. But, this blog is a facet of the Web medium, so I don’t want to tax your time, attention or memory too much. See our book if you want more detail.
Jakob Nielsen has made a career out of measuring the time people spend on Web pages. So I won’t elaborate on that. But we do make a unique contribution to this conversation in our book that I want to mention here. Namely, you have about 6 seconds on average to demonstrate to the user that your content is relevant to their information task. In print, users typically determine that something is relevant to them before picking up a book or periodical. On the Web, you need to demonstrate relevance with clear scannable elements, such as headings, subhedings, and infographics. It helps to tune your drive-to messages (SERPs, tweets, banners, etc.) to the audience, which will make them more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. But a gray page with no apparent relevance to a search query or tweet will get a bounce, even if it is relevant to the user’s information task.
This is related to time, of course, in the sense that it is measured in terms of the amount of time a user is willing to spend on a Web page. But it’s an important variable to talk about because it shapes the medium more than any single variable. In our book, we spend a lot of the reader’s attention on the continuum of attention spans in media. In the days before print, people had to memorize tune poems to learn history. In the days before spaces between words, writers had to write poetic verse because all reading was done out loud and readers could not parse the language without poetic structure. Print with spaces allowed writers to publish detailed, conceptual prose because readers could silently reflect on the text, consult indexes, skip, scan and bookmark texts.
The general trend is for attention spans to shorten as media get more sophisticated. The Web is not the end of this innovation, but it is near the current minimum. Users are not willing to burn their limited attention spans unless what you have to say is highly relevant to them. They’ll consume marginally relevant tweets. But Web pages need to be clearly part of their information journeys. If they are, they might be willing to spend as much as a 30 seconds consuming the information. If not, they’ll scan and leave. If you don’t give them something interesting to click in a short time, they will click the back button.
Imagine memorizing the Illiad. That was a prerequisite for Greeks who studied prior to literacy. As literacy got ever more sophisticated, people stopped needing to remember the details. This freed the part of their brains used to remember particular people, places and things to focus on types of people, places and things. Abstract thought requires literacy. Still, as print publications mounted, people needed to use more of their brains just to navigate their field of study and remember where to find important quotations and proofs in library collections. When print reached the limit of its effectiveness in the 1940s, we had become a culture of specialists who could only remember enough to master one narrow subject.
The Web changed all that. It is a medium for generalists–people who don’t need or even want to remember stuff. All they need to remember is how to find the information to refer to it later. Rather than focusing on the data itself, they can focus on the relationships between the data–relevance, significance, and so on. In so doing, they can master a number of subjects, and their interrelationships. Our book is an example of that: It is the intersection between linguistics (relevance), rhetoric (audience analysis) and media determinism. Prior to the Web, this kind of interdisciplinary study was very difficult, if not impossible.
What does this mean for content strategists? It means that navigation elements (read, anchor text) are the most important pieces of text on a Web page. Writing descriptive anchor text is perhaps the most important Web writing skill. It also means that you don’t want to change anchor text too much. If all users do is remember how to get around your site so that they can refer to it later, don’t force them to find things differently upon their return.
More than anything, it means that search is the most important application on your site. Many users don’t even want to remember how to navigate on your pages. They’re content to use search. Search is the application that only requires them to remember a few keywords. So writing for search will be the best way to write for most Web users. And, not coincidentally, the aspects of pages that make them easier to scan for time-challenged users with short attention spans (the bold words above) are the very things that search engines look for when determining what pages are most relevant to users’ keywords.