‘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.)