Scanning is the quickest way to get through reading material: glance at it just long enough to find the bit you’re interested in. It’s a big time-saver for readers and they’ll thank you for making your text as easy to scan as possible.
The readers’ scanning speed is determined by your writing and formatting decisions. For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming your text is a user manual, training guide or any other text intended to explain an application. There are several things you can do with such texts to make them easier to scan. I’ll start with writing tips, and move on to formatting.
1. To make instructions easy to scan, start them with their purpose and follow with a short explanation, then elaborate as needed. If the purpose is in the middle of an instruction, and with instructions being of various lengths, scanning is slowed down while the readers look for the relevant part of the sentence.
2. Help readers follow instructions by breaking them into numbered lines; this also helps them start reading at the point where they became unsure of themselves when working.
3. Don’t be afraid of sub-headers. They not only help the readers scan the text, they also construct a meaningful table of contents. Make the texts very clear and don’t be afraid of using too many sub-headers or interrupting the flow of the text – very few people read a user manual as if it were a fine piece of fiction.
4. To make options easily distinguishable use an identical sentence structure for all of them; this helps the differences stand out. If all options have an identical portion of text, consider using it just once, before the list.
5. Assume your readers are trying to read as little as possible, so give a short introduction to each section of the interface that explains what the section does and puts it in context.
6. Screen captures are an excellent aid to scanning, so be generous with them and give them clear captions.
1. Be generous with your white spaces. Indent lists, use wide margins, double-space the text and increase the space between paragraphs and between headers and text even more.
2. Use different formatting for standard text and for tips and notes.
3. Make headers and sub-headers easily distinguishable from each other and from the text.
4. To help readers find the relevant section in an interface’s explanation, make section and field names stand out, for example by using bold font.
5. Don’t use a small font, not even for the image captions.
6. Do not use too many colours; they distract the readers.