Bullet points: the case for and against

In the last year, we’ve debated bullet points with clients, designers and other copywriters. So where do you stand in the great bullet point debate?

 Bullet points: the case for and against

Opinions are split – are they a useful tool to aid scannability, or are there more attractive ways of breaking up copy?

Here’s the case for and against, with a few of the (paraphrased and anonymised) views we’ve heard.

THE CASE AGAINST BULLET POINTS

Opening statement
Bullet points have had their day – once the best way of breaking up large blocks of text, web users now expect something a little snazzier than a boring list of dot, dot, dot.

Witness testimony

  • “They’re a hangover from web 1.0, where the only way for designers to break up copy was monochromatic splodges.”
  • “It’s just benefit, benefit, benefit – boom, boom, boom. No attempt to find out what a user wants and tailor the content to them.”
  • “Too many and the page just looks cluttered”

The evidence
We’ve known for years that too many bullet points are just as bad as big blocks of text. The limit we set ourselves at Sticky is 6 – any more than that and you need to split your bullet point list into several, using sub-headings to properly introduce each.

There have also been lots of studies into why bullet points are the death knell of PowerPoint presentations. Some of the findings relate to web writing, too: they can look quite uninspiring and often bombard the user with too much information at once.

And it’s not like there aren’t alternatives to bullets, with presentation gurus advocating tables and iconography instead.

Closing argument
Bullet points are no longer needed in our post parallex-scroll world, where the options for breaking up big blocks of text are numerous, and look much better.

THE CASE FOR BULLET POINTS

Opening statement
As far as copywriting devices go, there’s a simplicity and efficiency to bullet points that can’t be beaten – a slight indent, a few little dots and suddenly a user can understand a topic, follow a process or see potential benefits in seconds.

Witness testimony

  • “We overestimate our customer’s longing for an ‘experience’ on our website – they want cold, hard facts. Bullet points give them that.”
  • “They’re the most effective way of breaking up copy and presenting lists – end of.”
  • “Swiping across menus, infographics, accordion lists or icons – they’re all poorer substitutes for bullet points.”

The evidence
Web writing is different to PowerPoint design and you can’t compare the two. The problem with bullets in a presentation is that it distracts from the person speaking and means the listener has to process verbal and written information. That problem doesn’t exist for someone visiting a website.

Swiping or scrolling through interactive lists takes time, while infographics or diagrams often take a few seconds to decipher – valuable time if your customer is in a hurry.

A website is also a so-called ‘pull channel’ – where users are coming to us to find out something or perform a task. Why would you make things harder for them?

Closing argument
Have you got £20,000 to spend on every article or product page you launch? No? Then bullet points are still the best and cheapest way of presenting lots of information, simply.

THE STICKY CONTENT VERDICT

We find in favour of the defence and Sticky will keep advocating bullets where appropriate. The humble splodge makes blog posts easier to digest, product pages easier to scan and forms quicker to complete.