Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox is geared to web usability for business intra-nets and e-commerce. It isn’t the final word on usability, but I’ve long appreciated his advocacy of web accessibility for computer users with disabilities. Nielsen’s latest column raises some provocative questions about web-based reading and writing:
Web content must be brief and get to the point quickly, because users are likely to be on a specific mission. In many cases, they’ve pulled up the page through search. Web users want actionable content; they don’t want to fritter away their time on (otherwise enjoyable) stories that are tangential to their current goals.
Instead of a predefined narrative, websites must support the user’s personal story by condensing and combining vast stores of information into something that specifically meets the user’s immediate needs. Thus, instead of an author-driven narrative, Web content becomes a user-driven narrative.
Print’s narrative exposition calls for well-crafted, complete sentences. Online, less so. Fragments often let you pull information-carrying keywords to the front, while also reducing froufrou word count. Because Web users read only 18% of added verbiage, cutting words is well worth the accusing squiggles that MS Word will throw at your sentence fragments.
E-Learning: An Oxymoron?
I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let’s praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector — which have been around for 500 and 32,000 years, respectively.
I continue to write books, and I continue to develop training seminars, because I believe these media are best for deep learning of new concepts.
We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.
For example, I dated “learning around the campfire” to 32,000 years ago to coincide with the emergence of high culture and the Cro-Magnons. Not that the Neanderthals didn’t have campfires — they simply didn’t have the cultural depth of modern humans, so I don’t think their storytelling was equal to my seminars. So, did I actually remember that Cro-Magnon culture started 32,000 years ago with the Lascaux cave paintings? No, I looked that little fact up online.