Often, we think of blogs as vehicles of textual content only. We believe the best ones rely on rich content written with window-pane clarity to build their readership base.
Yes, content is king, but the design of a blog is equally important so content is also easy to read. In fact, design is where certain decisions about readability originally take place.
Key elements to blog design exist to build in necessary access for readers, especially for blogs with complex content, such as medical blogs. Today we review four ground-level design basics: fonts, paragraph breaks, bullets, and graphic elements.
What is readability, and why does it matter?
Readability (sometimes called useability) is the measure of ease with which a reader can encounter and understand text. That alone explains why it matters that we ensure our blog content is readable.
According to a 2008 Nielsen Norman Group readability study, nearly 8 in 10 readers on the Web scan or skim the text of a blog post. Only 2 of those 10 blog readers actually read the content word for word.
We read less and scan more probably because we're all time pressed. We squeeze in blog reading while waiting in line or during commutes, breaks at work, or other brief transitions in the day.
Studies also show that our average digital reading pace is 25 percent slower than the speed with which we read in print. Because of this, we likely compensate by scrolling through content until our eyes locate what we are looking for.
What's also significant in the Nielsen Norman Group readability study is the amount of content we are willing to read all the way to the end, as defined by word count.
As the graphic shows, the percentage of readers who stick to the end of long-form pieces drops significantly at the 400-word mark.
Does this mean we should only write 400-word posts? No. Recent studies show distinct advantages in search engine optimization (SEO) for those blogging long-form content.
Ultimately, design helps us to package our text (at whatever length) in ways that make it inviting so that our blog visitors stop by, start reading, and stay with us to the very end.
There are visual tricks we can implement to turn impatient readers into devoted ones.
4 design elements to consider if you want patients to find and read your medical blog
These are the typefaces (letter sets or type sets) you choose to convey your blog text. The best font families for blog posts? Those which were created for the web (like Verdana) or those which lack serifs.
Serifs are the cross hatch marks that were developed initially for newsprint. Ironically, it turns out that, while serifs make words easier to track on the printed page, this is not so much the case when it comes to reading blocks of digital text.
Lucida Sans is a common sans serif font, as are the ever-popular Arial, Helvetica, and Trebuchet.
You can choose different styles of fonts for shorter text applications (including serif fonts) when they match your brand or distinguish headlines from body text. Just practice restraint; too many fonts will attract attention away from the very content you want your visitors to read.
How we format our fonts is something else to be selective about.
Boldfacing is helpful for creating places in the text where the reading eye can rest and take notice. But too much boldfacing visually clutters the blog.
Italicizing is equally useful in certain applications (to highlight words which are foreign or technical, for instance, or to give emotional emphasis words inside the narrative), but too many italics are hard on the eyes.
Underlining is usually only reserved for hyperlinks (in fact, if you underline words that aren't hyperlinks, that might make readers mad).
Strikethrough can be used to show revisions (significant ones, or humorous ones).
Using inline superscript and subscript formatting works when building formulas or footnotes, respectively. (But be wary of footnotes, as they aren't as user friendly as their digital equals, the hyperlinks.)
Color is mostly useful for text that's not coming at you in large blocks (although it can be used to good effect in block quotes or blow-up quotes). Play around with it to find ways to create interest and emphasis, but make sure you get feedback to make sure it works.
How big or small your fonts are also influences readability. Size should be chosen relative to function.
Tiny fonts (under 10 points) work for captions, attributions, subtitles, and image credits, but don't use them in body text.
Large fonts (over 14 points) are best employed in headers or what is known as display text (which is used more decoratively, such as for a blow-up quote or an initial cap; see Graphics, below, for examples).
Quickly... consider the two blocks of text above.
This is the opening section of our recent post describing the traits of the best medical blog posts. Same text, but one has no paragraph breaks or white space.
Which would you rather read?
Not only is the text on the right more inviting, but the sections of text are broken frequently and at natural transitions between ideas. Short patches of digital writing are far easier to read from both a visual and content standpoint.
These are a blogger's best friends. They an easily break up list material or help distinguish different points you're trying to make. Check out these examples.
- Numbered text is especially useful if you have a list of tasks that must be done in sequence.
- You should use this approach with lists of 3 or more items.
- Ennumerated bullets are also good for Top Ten or other lists where specific ranges are referenced.
- Bulleted lists are more useful when the items listed do not need to be presented in a hierarchy.
- These kinds of lists are good for sharing very short fragmented content.
- If you want to offset a list of links to direct your readers elsewhere into your blog, bullets can help.
Bolded lists use the first word of each short paragraph to accentuate specific content. These are useful for setting apart sections of only a sentence or two each.
These kinds of lists don't come built in with indents; use the indent feature to highlight them. You may wish to separate them with more white space for easy of reading.
Using bolded lists comes in handy when you've already used other kinds of graphical listing tools. This way you can build in some visual diversity.
Here are some other design elements you can use to create a user-friendly blog experience for your readers.
Blow-up quotes "call out" content from inside a blog so that it gets noticed immediately! Sometimes a designer might even box it in, boldface it, or use a different color.
"Blockquotes indicate quoted (and attributed!) material from outside sources that you want to emphasize. They frequently come indented to set this important content apart from the body."—Tamara Sellman for inboundMed.com
Initial caps are enlargements of the first letters of new paragraphs. They aren't seen as often in blogs, but they can be an interesting classic element that breaks up space.
Horizontal rules can be used to visually separate text and images to maintain visual order inside a blog post.
An infographic is a graphic packaging of text like the one you see here (right). In this case, you have four different segments that you can fill in with useful information that can be easily shared.
A writer and graphic designer can work together to make these for nearly any kind of informational blog post. They work great when reader education matters (such as with medical blogs).
Repeating elements like interactive badges, buttons, and bars can help readers navigate your blog from within each post.
For instance, in a medical blog, you could post a patient's anecdote about living with OCD, then post a small call-to-action badge that reads "Can you relate to this story? Click here to share yours!"
You'll be amazed at how many people want to share their stories, and using a badge as an inline call to action can help turn these readers into leads and, potentially, new patients.
Final thought: Design serves the message
Designing a blog to work in service to the content improves readability. Content must inform the use of design elements; don't put them in just because they're pretty. They're best used to make the blog easier to read; visitors then benefit from all the content you have to share.
Coming next week: The best advice comes in threes: The 3 Ts of health blogging
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