Why user needs should dictate word count

A lot of organisations specify a word count for web pages. This is supposed to help usability — we know people generally read less online than they do on paper.

But word counts are often used as a tool to try to control bad writing, not to promote good content.

Word counts don’t make interesting content

You can be boring in 5 words or fewer.

Quite frankly, you can be boring and pointless very quickly. You can lose your audience in 3 seconds or less. It’s not the amount of words on a page that will give you usable, shareable, informative or engaging content. It’s the words you use.

If you have an arbitrary word count, you could find authors:

  • filling up the space because they can,
  • having to split content because they were a paragraph over. 

This means mucking about with good structure and interrupting a good user journey for no real benefit for you or your audience.

Word counts don’t make good content

At Directgov, a big, orange, pre-GOV.UK, government website for citizens, we had a 750 word limit for each page of content. We also had a minimum of 300 words. This was meant to stop departments writing reams and reams or publishing a page when there was very little to say. 

It worked to a degree but it wasn’t great. Departments would publish content that was 301 words long and could have been 80 words, just because of a word count limit. The audience had to read 221 superfluous words for no real reason. This didn’t make sense for the people writing it or the people reading it.

Word count depends on purpose

The content’s purpose will give you your word count.

If you are writing to user needs you will know what your audience wants to know at what time. For example, let’s look at renewing an adult passport in the UK.

The page about renewing a passport has 358 words. This would just make the Direct.gov range. But there’s no superfluous content on the page. It’s just what you need to know, at the time you need to know it, based on the task you are trying to complete.

This content is the result of:

  • research, 
  • good copy (keeping the information tight to the task and the user story),
  • content design (pulling out the most relevant information in a way that’s easily consumed).

Arbitrary word counts can be harmful to usability. Structured, user-centred, well researched content is all you need. Instead of writing words to meet a target, instead:

  • answer, and only answer, the user need,
  • cut unnecessary words,
  • think how your audience will use the information (this will influence the format it is in - classic content design),
  • respect your audience’s time and the environment they are in (this may influence how long they will read for).

Easy 😉

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