‘Text is a UI’: How Journalists Can Work Usability into Online Words

Text style and placement took center stage a few weeks back while dissecting how news orgs tweet breaking news. Where should you put “Breaking”? Should it be “BREAKING”? Do you even need it at all?

A new, related mantra I’m considering for all online media endeavors, “Text is a UI.”

I found it while perusing the Alertbox of Jakob Nielsen, a web design guru whose work I’ve linked to in the past (and probably will again in the future).

“It’s a common mistake to think that only full-fledged graphical user interfaces count as interaction design and deserve usability attention,” Nielsen wrote in a post about using iterative design to move around and change words, resulting in a good, clickable, retweetable tweet.

It may sound deep and philosophical, but “Text is a UI” makes simple sense. Letters are symbols with arbitrary meaning. Words, too. And when they are paired next to and among other symbols and images online, it makes sense that we should consider not just what the words say, but also how the pairing, order, color, placement and even capitalization of our text can impact how users interact with online content. Words symbolize and signify, but they signal, too. They direct us. They’re cues for a user.

Put another way, design concepts stretch into text, because our written language is a visual. Text is composed to help us understand something, but more goes into that composition than just meaning. Word order, for instance, doesn’t just affect comprehension. Word order can guide us to read one thing over another.

The “Text is a UI” lens isn’t wholly new to journalism. For as long as there has been newspapers, the headline has done this UI job—it signals what the piece is about, and, as journalism 101 teaches us, the order of words matters.

But there’s much more headline-ish text now. All over the place. Tweets, links, email subject lines and more. For all practical purposes, we have many recognizable “new headlines.” And arguably, the web texts we may think less about – Twitter handles, URLs – do the same headline job, too.

What is important to note is that “Text is a UI” shouldn’t be a mantra reserved for web designers. Everyone needs a variety of web skills and smarts these days, and usability in your text should be included. Here are a few spots where this mindset could help:


Links in body-text

Why to think usability: Links automatically pop out to the eye, and often times, they are indeed headlines, no different than a print paper. But in articles and posts, they’re an additional gateway to more content (and a pathway for more traffic, if your business model lives on it.) You want people to easily know what a link is about, and to click through, too.

Questions to ask: Research from Nielsen suggests that the first 11 characters of a link may make or break it for our trained-to-scan eyes. What are your first two hyperlinked words? Do they categorize the content enough? Are they active? Do the words you use compel you to click and know what you’re clicking if you’re just scanning a page? In this sense, is “Click here” clear?



Why to think usability: There are buckets of tweets out there. Batches of buckets of tweets. And you want yours to stand out.

Questions to ask: Do you compose your tweets not just for content, but for easy categorization while someone is scrolling through? How do you signify what a tweet is about? A hashtag? All-caps? Where? (Check out Nielsen’s above mentioned tweet-post, and our breaking news on Twitter post.)


Twitter handles

Why to think usability: Tweet composition can be crucial (see above), and of course, content is king in tweets, like everywhere else. But more text than your 140 characters factors into what a user sees. You want your Twitter handle to be optimized for UI, too.

Questions to ask: Does your name clearly denote who you are or what you want your presence to be? If someone retweets you during breaking news, for instance, will they know who you are without much effort? Would a “CNN” after your name help your users, perhaps building a sense of trust without a click to view a profile?


Facebook posts

Why to think usability: Like Twitter, users scroll by their newsfeed, and you want them to stop at you. There’s more text space on Facebook than Twitter, and you want to best leverage the room to help achieve your platform goals.

How to think usability: The first two-word bias probably lives here as well. What do you put first to signal content or context to scrolling users? Who do you tag (and highlight in blue) in a post, and how does that help a scrolling user? Where do you put links on a Facebook post, and are they shortened or human-readable, acting as another signifier of content?



Why to think usability: Many posts or articles will have tags at the bottom or a category the content is “filed under,” perhaps up top, like ours. These are often linked, and they’re gateway to more content, more traffic, more learning.

Questions to ask: The same rules applies. Are your tags usable in the sense that they are what a person may want to know more about on your site? How much thought goes into how you categorize them? Do you need a tag for both “Ryan” and “Paul Ryan”? What is the order of your tags? Can the order help the user?


Email addresses

Why to think usability: Email addresses are at times a byline, but also a point of engagement with an audience. You want people to easily use them, making your communication easier, too.

Questions to ask: Do your email addresses make sense? Do they make sense for remembering, or for someone who is guessing at an address? Can you set up general topic forwarders – a “help@” or a “support@” to go to the right people? Is your contact information listed in a logical place for people to access?



Why to think usability: These sit separately up top, sometimes peppered for the best SEO and nothing else. But they’re part of the experience for us as well. Not to mention they are often copied and pasted, in full, perhaps into an email. They signal content and can compel clicks just as hyperlinked text can. They cue computers and readers alike.

Questions to ask: Is the text in your links helpful for SEO and helpful for humans? Can it help with engines but also draw a person in? In what ways can it be “hacked” to find more content, a second page, a different topic, etc.? While the page loads, can a URL immediately tell you what you’re getting?

(Neat to note: Nielsen has a post on URL as UI from 1999. See why I would link to him?)