Keeping up appearances

This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.

Don't lose track of the importance of textual content on your Web site

Peter Seebach (

May 2001

Last time <> Peter examined why it's important to implement privacy policies that work. This time he talks more about your Web page content. In your effort to create usable Web pages, don't forget to make sure your textual content is up to snuff. Poor grammar, spelling, or choice of fonts can be easily remedied, but if ignored, these shortcomings can send the wrong message to your users.

Your HTML is perfect. How's your natural language?

A lot of Web pages that are otherwise very good are marred by mistakes in the textual representation of their content. Poor grammar or spelling can make a persuasive and well-produced page much less appealing to a user. A poor choice of font or character set can have much the same effect. If you are making it harder for a user to understand your page, you are reducing the usability of your page. Use of font-specific features, or poor choices of text coloring or size, can likewise render a page unusable.

Spelling isn't just for bees

While the world is full of amusing quotes about the irrelevance of spelling (my favorite is "I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way" -- often attributed to Mark Twain), the fact is that it's quite possible to ensure that all the words on a page are spelled correctly. If you don't, it's certainly possible for people to discern your meaning, in most cases, but they will have a harder time of it. Furthermore, any time you place the burden of communication on your readers, you are suggesting that their time is cheap and yours is valuable. Even if this is true, it doesn't help you any to imply it.

Software can't completely solve this problem for you. Some of the most common spelling mistakes on Web pages are perfectly good words -- used in the wrong places. "Download you're software now," for instance, is not going to make you any friends. Poor spelling looks sloppy, drives readers away, and hurts your credibility.

The sort of grammar up with which I shall not put

Poor grammar can be just as annoying. My personal least-favorite in this category goes to the common Apache error message, "The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it." Sentences that don't hold together well always give the impression that the writer's whole train of thought didn't hold together well. That hurts your credibility. It makes your page harder to use (especially if, as is too often the case, the result is unintelligible or ambiguous).

If you're writing in a language that isn't your native tongue, make sure to have someone who does read and write it natively do some review for you.

Software is laughably far from a really good solution to this; there is currently no workable substitute for familiarity with the language you're writing in.

Smart quotes and stupid fonts

Instead of plain apostrophes, many pages use strange characters called "smart quotes." However, if you don't view them in the intended font, you don't get quotes; in a text browser or a Usenet posting, these often show up as "^R" or "^S". On my Mac or my Unix machine, they often show up as little question marks. The same goes for the character some Windows programs pick to indicate a little R-in-a-circle, used to indicate a registered trademark.

This is very hard to fix correctly; not all browsers can represent these characters, in some cases, and the HTML entities you're supposed to use won't put a character in a font that didn't have it. You can't force the user to use a specific font.

The best solution is, of course, to rely only on characters that do exist in all the standard fonts. I have not seen a computer without an apostrophe in years; why not just use a plain apostrophe, instead of a "smart quote" when you want to indicate a possessive? If you want to indicate copyright, just write "Copyright."

Don't try to tell people what font to use; it won't work, and it will only make you look clueless when it doesn't work.

More font mayhem

More troublesome than the occasional unreadable character is an entire unreadable page. Font sizes sound like a great idea until you try to read a page that has carefully selected a "comfortably small" font size. On my laptop, which hasn't got the resolution to play these games, I see odd little arrangements of pixels that perhaps suggest letters. In many cases, the only way for me to read the "fine print" is to disable font support entirely, or browse with a plain-text browser.

Don't try to set font sizes smaller than the "normal" font size a user has selected. Chances are, if your user has ever considered the issue at all, the font size used for default text is just right. Don't try to override the user; you can't see his or her screen.

The same goes for font colors. Please don't overdo it. In particular, don't use black text on a black background with a light-colored image on top of the background. The default colors are likely to be just fine for most people.


The way you write communicates a lot about you to your readers. If you take the time to write clearly and correctly, you are telling your readers that their time is valuable to you. If you write sloppily, spell poorly, and don't take the time to correct your errors, you are sending the message that your readers are not very important to you. If your page renders with incorrect characters in a reader's browser, the reader will have a harder time understanding your material, and will know that you didn't check your work. There is a reason why professional writers, even experienced ones, still have their work edited: Uncorrected errors damage the integrity of a work. If there are to be problems with your page, at least make sure they aren't the kind you could easily fix, such as spelling, grammar, and choice of fonts.

This week's action item: Check your company's pages for characters with the high bit set. What are they supposed to look like? How do they look when viewed on various browsers?


About the author

Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at