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Trains, Toilets, and Tickets: Signs in Content Strategy

04-28-11 Maria Norman

What airport signage and writing for the web have in common.

The most significant thing I took away from Killer Web Content, a content strategy book by Gerry McGovern, was the following:

“I was in an airport recently, taking an escalator down to the trains. At the bottom of the escalator, there were three signs, all beginning with the letter T. What were they? I’ll give you a hint––the first one was “Trains.”

The three signs read: Trains, Tickets, Toilets

We read on the Web as if we’re coming down an escalator. We need very clear messages that meet our core needs. When we arrive at a homepage we expect to be able to understand what that website is about within 30 seconds. What is your “Trains, Tickets, and Toilets”? (69).

So now, when I’m writing copy, I try to put myself in the shoes of the visitor and mimic this experience of being in an unfamiliar area. I think about what “signs” I can “hang” to let them know as quickly as possible where to find what they need. Examples of this could be making sure the titles of navigation items are intuitively labeled and ordered, working with the designer to make sure the most important messaging coordinates with the page hierarchy, and writing concisely so the reader doesn’t wade through tons of copy and get lost.

If the purpose of your site is to sell a product, make it easy to buy. Conversely, if the purpose of your site is to educate or inform, make sure the information is thoughtfully organized, well labeled, and written in terms a layman would understand. If the purpose of your site is to offer your services, make sure it’s persuasive and offers plenty of reasons why they should pick you.

In the end, maybe it would be helpful to consider yourself a tour guide. Don’t just throw the reader into the website assuming that if they can read, surely they can stumble their way around. Wave some flags, make some signs––save your readers some frustration by making it easy for them to find what they need.

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