Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Show Numbers as Numerals When Writing for Online Readers

Numerals vs. spelled-out numbers on websites ...

"It's better to use "23" than "twenty-three" to catch users' eyes when they scan Web pages for facts, according to eyetracking data.
We've known the basic guidelines for writing for the Web since our earliest studies in 1997. A key finding is that most website users don't read all your words. Instead, they scan the text and pick out headlines, highlighted words, bulleted lists, and links. Scanning is even more prevalent for readers of email newsletters.

(There are a few exceptions to this rule: lower-literacy users can't scan, while higher-literacy users read the entire page if they're really interested or in desperate need of the information. But it's the height of arrogance to assume that all of your customers are extraordinarily interested in everything you write -- more likely, they'll read a few pages and scan the rest.)

One of eyetracking's greatest benefits is that it lets us follow users' reading behaviors in great detail, especially when we watch slow-motion gaze replays after test sessions. Our recent eyetracking studies have given us new insights into how users read various website elements, including bulleted lists, the table-of-content-style list of links at the top of many FAQs, and those rare advertisements that actually attract fixations.

Among our discoveries was that numerals often stop the wandering eye and attract fixations, even when they're embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore.

• Why do users fixate on numerals? Because numbers represent facts, which is something users typically relish. Sometimes people are looking for specific facts, such as a product's weight or size, so product pages are certainly one place where you should write numbers as numerals. But even when a number doesn't represent a product attribute, it's a more compact (and thus attractive) representation of hard information than flowery verbiage.

• How do users' eyes locate numerals while skipping past words? The shape of a group of digits is sufficiently different from that of a group of letters to stand out to users' peripheral vision before their foveal vision fixates on them. 2415 looks different than four, even though both consist of 4 characters. (As the previous sentence shows, stating the number of characters as a numeral makes it stand out, even without the bold highlighting.)

Digits enhance the scannability of Web content. It's that simple.

Departing from Traditional Writing Style
Traditional copywriting style guides for print publications dictate that you spell out many numbers. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style says to spell out:

• "whole numbers from one through ninety-nine;"
• any of these numbers "followed by hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, and so on;"
• round numbers;
• very big numbers (millions, billions, etc.); and
• numbers that appear as the first word in a sentence.

I've frequently said that the guidelines for online writing differ from those for writing for print. I can now add that the guidelines for presenting numbers are different for websites than for print publications."    (Continued via Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]


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