Jason in a Nutshell

All about programming and whatever else comes to mind

Bold in blog posts NOT considered harmful

Posted by Jason Baker on January 1, 2009

Jimmy Bogard makes a post about the 10 things to retire in 2009.  Of course, within that list is the obligatory “scold bloggers for using bold” item:

One of my bigger pet peeves is anything in bold.  It’s a cheap trick to grab attention, yet it always works.  Yes, Atwood does it all the time and although it grabs attention, it’s the blogger equivalent of that dork that “quotes” “all” “his” “words”.  The last thing we need is another cookie-cutter Atwood knockoff.

Before I make any arguments, I’d like to let Jeff’s blog speak for itself (this post):

But not all user interface conventions are created equal. Some are timeless. Some are there by default, because nobody bothered to sufficiently question them. Some grow old and outlive their usefulness. How do we discriminate between conventions that actually help us and those that are merely.. expected?

The answer, of course, is to try multiple approaches and collect usage data to determine what works and what doesn’t. This is (relatively) easy for web apps, which is why Amazon, Yahoo and Google are all notorious for doing it. They’ll serve up experimental features to a tiny fraction of the user base, collect data on how those features are used, then feed that back into their decision making process.

If we built UI with an iron-clad guarantee that we would “do it like everyone else”, would we have ever experienced the ultra simple Mom-friendly Tivo UI? Or Windows Media Center’s amazing, utterly un-Windows-like ten foot UI? Would Office 12 be using theinnovative new ribbon instead of traditional toolbars and menus? Heck, would we have ever made the transition from character mode to GUIs?

Did you read the quote?  Be honest.  Of course you didn’t.  It was a block of text totally unrelated to the subject of this article.  But do you know what it was about?  You probably have an idea.  It’s about figuring out what conventions we use for the sake of having conventions and the ones that are actually useful.  The rest of it is just supporting info.

To be fair, I don’t think that this is an issue that only Jimmy faces as I’ve seen this gripe before.  But I feel that a lot of people misunderstand what Jeff is trying to do (and maybe Jeff is doing something wrong that I’m missing to encourage that misunderstanding).  The thing is, if you’re just adding bold as a cheap trick to get attention, you’re doing it wrong.

In my first public speech class, I was taught to outline my speech something like this:

Today I plan to talk to you at x, y, and z.  Let’s talk about x first

Now that I’ve talked about x, let’s move on to y.

Now that I’ve talked about y, let’s talk about z.

Ok, we’ve talked about z, so let’s wrap it up.

When you’re talking, all those transitions can get repetitive.  In fact, that’s the point.  No matter how effective a speaker you are, your listeners are going to space out or daydream or otherwise not pay attention to you at various places during your speech.  And if someone zones out, you want to make sure they won’t be lost when they start paying attention again.

The same is true about blogging.  No matter how good a writer you are, people aren’t going to read your whole damn post.  Thus, you should assume that at any given point your user may go into “skim mode.”  And when a user does go into skim mode, you want to make sure that they don’t miss something important.  So what, praytell, is a blogger to do?  Well, there are multiple approaches.  But it seems that some of the most successful bloggers will choose to go the bold route fairly often.

And for the record, yes I did add bold phrases to the article for the sheer irony of it.  That’s how I roll.

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4 Responses to “Bold in blog posts NOT considered harmful”

  1. Phil H said

    I use bold to make a self-documenting summary, or a vague context for each paragraph – so you could just skip to the interesting bit.

    The deeper problem was that my posts were far too verbose – I hadn’t taken to heart the dictum “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

    But if you have a desire to elaborate, should you keep a summary at the top, and let people click to the relevant paragraphs? Or be Steve Yegge and ask commitment of your readers?

  2. Jason Baker said

    I don’t think verbosity is a problem. The bigger problem is that readers are intimidated by a huge wall of text. Thus, you should do things to break it up and/or give your readers something else to focus on for a while.

    The best strategy for doing this is using lots of pictures. I personally dislike having to go through google images every other post that I make though. So my strategy is to do other things like breaking things down into bullet points or using bold or inserting block quotes or using code snippets.

    In my opinion, that’s why “10 things that ….” type posts are so popular. Because they break posts down into less intimidating chunks.

  3. Phil H said

    10 things that… is also limited to being 10 items long – it certainly has the attraction of being fairly brief.

    On your point about presentations, the best presentations I’ve seen are story-based, but I’ve always struggled with attempting to fit technical content into a story structure. Presenting scientific results particularly so – you’re supposed to be presenting your successful endeavours, so how do you incorporate the crisis necessary for it to be a story? Setting, crisis, resolution, right?

  4. Jason Baker said

    Well, I’m no speech communications specialist, but my opinion is that you should strive to have a structure that’s easy for your audience to understand. I don’t think what points you break it down into are really important as long as you have that.

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