Skimming & Blog Summaries

As a web developer, I think that one of the easiest pitfalls to run into is assuming that the content on your page is as interesting to your readers as it is to you. Whether we are talking about features, or tools, or images – adding those things often have us grinning like proud fools and bouncing on our well-flattened computer chairs with a shout of ‘Woot! I’m so good. Everyone is going to love my new [insert some new feature / tool / etc.. here].’

But is that a reality? The answer is, sadly, no. Our happy developer often doesn’t realize that most users not only do not care, but worse, they don’t even notice it. Why is it that a user can visit our page (even multiple times!) and still not notice some new feature we’ve added? The answer is simple – web surfers skim.

Now, most web folks are aware of this habit. Unfortunately, developers often think that the solution to that is to make the text bigger, brighter, underlined, italic, flashing, bouncing, and talking (or, Heaven forbid!, all of the above). Have those same developers sit back and watch a user surf their website, and they are often shocked at how often people flat out ignore those things. Why?

In all its flashing brightness it’s no longer a feature – it’s an annoyance. People tend to visually block out annoyances just like a regular web surfer trains themselves to no longer even see most ads on a page. People tend to block out all annoying things in the same way.

The other reason that a user may not notice is that it depends on what they are visiting your site for. If you are visiting this blog right now, you’ll see multiple post bits on the main page. If you are looking for information on CSS, you will be looking at some keywords that you know. Some other keywords might be styles, rules, selectors, sheets, etc… for things that your experience tells you would typically go along with CSS.

Looking for those things, you skim for those words on the page. However, if you are looking for information on DOM scripting… your keywords would be entirely different. In that case, your primary words might be DOM, DOM 2, and DOM 3 and your keywords might be things like scripting, object model, child, node, etc… for things that you might be looking for with DOM.

What this means to a web developer is that you can never account for what a user is going to see on your page. A web surfer is the epitome of someone who ‘sees what they want to see’ rather than all the information. So, to accomodate your visitors, you need to adjust your perspective and realize that you can never fully account for what they are seeing on your page – it will differ from person to person, and even day to day per person depending on what they are looking for.

That understood, let’s consider the problem with most blogs. By default, most blogs are set to show one or more full posts on the main page. This is, inherently, going to make limit what your viewers can actually skim – particularly if you present a main page to them that is the equivalent of about 10 written pages of multiple blog posts. This is often what happens, and you’ll see many blogs like that. The main page is actually about 6 or posts one after another.

If I post 90% of the time on CSS, but my last two posts (shown at the top of the long main page in full) happen to on different topics, a reader can skim through quite a lot of information and think they won’t find what they are looking for on the blog. Not only do those long front pages make for some increased loading time (another deterrant), but if they have to skim down through that much information, chances are good that they won’t choose to. The back button is a lot easier to click. Sure, it works out great if your first post or two are on exactly what you are looking for, but how likely is that? Not very, in my perspective.

So, how do you increase the amount of information they can skim for their keywords on a blog? List your posts instead of displaying them in full. You can just show the title, or you can show a title and a separate summary of the post, or you can do a title with part of the actual post showing. I definitely think that all blogging software should adjust it so that posts are shown in summary form by default, but that’s another discussion. Presenting your information in a more concise way gives the user more possibilities to skim and find what they are looking for that day.

For certain, I can say that WordPress, Blogger, and the Expression Engine all have a default that shows the pages in full (versus a summary), so those are the ones I’ll talk about fixing. I haven’t checked the others, but I’d wager a guess it’s the same in many cases. For now, let me briefly tell you how to fix WordPress, Blogger, and EE.

In WordPress, I think the easiest way to do this is to use the handy little more function.
All you have to do is type your post as normal, then put this code somewhere in your post (say after your first paragraph or so), and it will stop displaying on your main page at that point, and provide the user with a link to the full post to finish reading it. WordPress also has this button in the post writing GUI. Another option for both WordPress and Expression Engine is to use post summaries (called excerpts in WordPress). For my WordPress blog I use a plugin called ‘Post Teaser’.

Expression Engine makes this similarly easy by the use of a different command in your template code. If you create a post summary for your post, all you have to do is put the {summary} command in your template to show just the summary. For instance, I have some code that looks like this in an EE template:

<h2>In News</h2>
{exp:weblog:entries weblog="news" limit="2" status="open" orderby="date"}
<h3><a href="{title_permalink="news/article"}">{title}</a></h3>

Blogger is a bit more complicated, unfortunately. It involves making some changes to the stylesheet, and turning on a feature called permalinks (which I think should be on by default anyway). There is a very good explanation of how to create those summaries here: Expandable Post Summaries.

I think that most people will be able to get more use out of a website if they have more summarized information to look at. Keeping it short and making your content clear is one of the laws of good usability. If you want to learn more on usability, there is a very good (and short!) book by Steve Krug called “Don’t Make Me Think” that does a great job of teaching the basics of usability.