Top tips for writing lists online

Allow users to scan for information quickly by creating lists. Find out how to make lists useful and useable...

 Top tips for writing lists online

Lists give users a way to quickly scan for information. Find out how to write lists so they are useful and usable.

Users need to grasp the content of pages quickly and without friction. Using lists can help you do this, without losing essential information. Lists help readers identify key issues and facts quickly.

Three main types of lists

  • A short list within an article
  • A list-based article (eg Top 10 things to do in Paris…)
  • A step-by-step guide/list of instructions

Each requires a slightly different approach...

Lists within articles

Keep your lists short – our typical short term memory span is about 7 things – meaning that we can hold around 7 things in mind at the same time. So ideally your list should aim to match this length with around 5-7 things.

Having worked out what your list points are, you need to think about the order of information.

Many psychological studies reveal that if we are presented with lists we are much more likely to remember the first few words and the last few words. This is known as the serial position effect – recalling the first words is the primacy effect and the later words is the recency effect.

Therefore, make sure you put your most important points at the beginning and the end of your list (front-loading).

Longer lists

If you need to create a longer list, think whether you can break them up into logical chunks. So, for example, if your product has a long list of benefits, can you group them under particular headings?

So, if you were writing a page about a holiday destination, for example, you might put the benefits of the hotel together, another grouping around the resort itself, and finally another group around what is close by – rather than mixing them all in one long list.

You may also find other ways to organise long lists, alphabetically, for example.

If you have longer lists with lots of content for each point, having space around your list allows users to quickly scan through information. This is the case for those Top 10s – see, for example, 10 usability heuristics – and what they mean for copywriters.

Here, the space between items and the bold headers allows the scan-reader to quickly understand the main points of the page.

Step-by-step – instructions and processes

A very good use of lists is to walk users through a process in a logical way. This works very much like a recipe, or a guide to putting together flat-pack furniture. Each step should be numbered and in a logical order. This step needs to be completed before the next step is undertaken.

A good example of this kind of list is Recycle Now's guide Composting is easy – a step by step guide

What's confusing is when the steps are in the wrong order. For example, on the Paperchase returns policy page, step 2 tells you to Package your return, then step 3 tells you what to include in your package – potentially after you've wrapped it up!