A Lack of Basic Text Formatting Skills

By Deane Barker on April 28, 2006

I’ve been working with content management for a long time, and there’s one thing that’s been constant: at some point, a user is going to write and format some text in some kind of control. How good are they going to be at this? Their level of skill here will go a long way in determining how effective content management can be.

When content management developers look at a domain of content, we tend to divide it up in our head – this data will go in this field, this data in this field, etc.

Some content can be broken up more than other content. Some is so structured as to be a collection of simple text or numbers in fields. Other content requires a larger area in which an editor can, well, edit some text – the body of the ubiquitous “text page,” for instance.

Often, you put WYSIWYG controls in these spaces, and let the editors have at it. However, what I’ve found is that even if you structure a text page as much as possible – break out fields for title, subtitle, author, summary, etc. – things break down pretty quickly in the body of the text page.

People just aren’t that good at formatting a page of text. It’s sad, but true.

Last year, I complained about the lack of skill the average user has with Word. I’ve done the same with FrontPage. How are WYSIWYG editors much different? You end up with about the same thing: really poorly-formatted text.

No matter how sophisticated the WYSIWYG editor, here are the things I see over and over again:

  1. No use of headings

  2. No use of bulleted or numbered lists

  3. Overuse of underlining and boldface

  4. No concept of whitespace

  5. Paragraphs that are way too long for the Web

  6. No awareness of the difference between a line break and a paragraph break

  7. No awareness of what terms should be hyperlinked, and where they should link

  8. No awareness of how images should be positioned

  9. A desire to center every heading, title, and subtitle

  10. Attempts to “hack” horizontal whitespace with tabs and consecutive spaces

  11. Overly large tables without headings, captions, or consistent spacing

(Note too that pretty much all of these things could apply to formatting documents in Word too. Text formatting and document structure is a universal computer skill.)

The bottom line is that you can implement the most beautiful design and sophisticated content management system in the world. But if the users have no concept of text formatting and no idea of how to structure a page of text, you’re just going to be throwing ugly blobs of text around.

I just launched a big project with Ektron CMS400.Net. This system is built around eWebEditPro, which is an excellent WYSIWYG editor – probably the best I’ve seen.

In training, I spent a lot of time working with users on how to format text. The results were mixed. I think they do it better than they did before training, but I still see a complete abandonment of formatting tools in a lot of the content they’re generating.

And all the tools are there – eWebEditPro rivals Word in its ability to format. Plus, we have eWebEditPro really dialed in in terms of available styles and tools specific to this organization’s content. But we still get a lot of bad formatting.

I’m not saying that all users have to be graphic artists or even great writers. But there’s a lot of usability difference between a poorly-formatted and well-formatted page of text. And all the WYSIWYG in the world isn’t going to move people from the former to the latter unless they’ve been trained on specifically how to do it.

So do we abandon WYSIWYG? No, it very much has its place. But unleashing WYSIWYG on your users is not enough – they have to be trained in basic document formatting.

I’ve never seen this training done in a universal, platform-independent manner. Document and text formatting in general is rarely addressed outside of specific platforms, and that’s a shame.

Comments (5)

Peter Harkins says:

I wrote a response that was a bit long for a comment and Gadgetopia doesn’t appear to take trackbacks, so I’m posting a link.

Tony Arnold says:

eWebEditPro rivals Word in its ability to format

I was under the (mis?)understanding that eWebEditPro is Word.

I completely agree on the sentiments you’ve expressed here – we’ve seen exactly the same behaviour after implementing Interwoven’s TeamSite where I work. Most users have difficulty constructing a sensible e-mail, let alone constructing an entire document (web-based or otherwise) that needs to be concise and clear.

It’s the conundrum of content management: you enable your users to contribute to the content creation and management process, but who says your users are even up to the task in the first place?

We’ve ended up hiring copywriters to assist our user base, which seems like a never-ending task, but our marketing documents are now much clearer.

Dan Horne says:

I don’t know eWebEditPro, but I use FCKeditor in my projects. I hide most widgets – particularly those that allow users to add colours and their own fonts and font sizes. To allow users to add colour and different text sizes, pre-defined styles are available in the syle drop-downs. It just makes things easier...

Miguel says:

Really interesting... but what about “12. commercials that greatly annoy the reading of a text” (as the ******* tigers of the column at the right of your post)?

Sophie says:

OK, so I am a little late in commenting but I have to say I agree with every word. I have spent YEARS as the lone usability voice in large corporate. I have begged and pleaded with content authors to trim and format their text but to no avail.

Most authors are just too fond of the sight of their own text, they cannot bear to edit out a word.

No WYSIWYG editor is going to help. Perhaps a chainsaw?