September 2014
By Markus Nickl

Image: Robyn Mackenzie/ 123rf.com

Prof. Dr. Markus Nickl founded doctima GmbH in 1998. Comprehensibility, documentation workflows and social media are the focus of his work. He publishes regularly on these topics. Markus Nickl advises tekom-members on questions related to language. He has been an honorary professor at the University of Aarhus since 2012.


markus.nickl[at]doctima.de
www.doctima.de


 


 

A clear statement

Headings inspire people to keep reading and provide orientation. If headings are thought through systematically and formulated accordingly, a helpful structure can be created.

Before we get started, let’s take a look at the summary of the functions of headings:

  • Portioning: Headings divide the reading flow through pure typography. This makes it easier to find content.
  • Summary: Headings can serve as a type of brief introduction for the reader and present the important information in the text in condensed form.
  • Orientation: Along with summarizing the content, headings can provide a description of the type of information the reader can expect in the following sections.
  • Motivation: Good headings draw the reader towards the text and encourage him to read further.

 

Style of headings

A core problem while formulating headings is that the described functions don’t mesh well with each other: Portioning, summarizing and orienting suggest clarity, brevity and tangibility. Motivation on the other hand arises from a more hands-on approach, the interactive or the mysterious. Luckily for us technical writers the two functions can be separated easily, usually through the target group. Investment goods depend less on motivating aspects, while more effort needs to be taken for consumer goods. One or the other function therefore rises to the forefront depending on the target group.

Similar styling rules apply to the first three functions. Headings should be short and should not consist of complete sentences. They should be limited to a statement and shouldn’t convey complex content. It is also essential to avoid complex grammatical structures like passive or modal verbs. This comes as no surprise for technical writers. Ultimately, similar things are required from us for the entire text.

Like other style rules, rules for headings should also be applied within reason; there are always exceptions to the rule. Therefore, it can certainly make sense to formulate a heading in passive or to use a long term.

Be flexible with headings

How can an instruction manual be improved through the formulation of headings? The word placement is an important element. It is somewhat flexible, which can be used, when headings come up as hit lists in digital documents, for instance. We can group the described object or the process as per the word placement:

  • User account set-up
  • User account management
  • User account blocking

Or:

  • Blocking the user account
  • Blocking the access rights
  • Blocking the download

Using this small formulation trick you can define the context in which the search result appears. The only determining factor here is that the first word of the heading is significant. But a small inconsequent matter undoes the principle. If the heading says “To block a user account”, then the grouping takes place with other headings as per the actual article.

Another interesting technique uses different formulation patterns to signal to the user the type of information that he can expect in the section. For example, the writer can define that explanatory passages are always formulated with a question, introductory sections with an infinitive form and examples with “This is how it works…”. If you use it consistently you will obtain an additional structuring level for the table of contents. You show the hierarchy between the text sections and the type of information at the same time:

1.    What is a user account?

2.    Set up a user account

    2.1    What is a set-up assistant?

    2.2    Create new user

    2.3    This is how it works: New user

3.    What is account management

    3.1    Configure control elements

    3.2    This is how it works: Customize account management

In this table of content the reader can easily identify that section 2 is more introductory in nature, while section 3 is explanatory, but has an introductory section.

Balance weak points

The writer can simplify access to a text for a reader through clever formulations. A system can be created as required which the reader infers intuitively.  And considering that finding information has been designated as the greatest weak point of manuals in user surveys over and over again, it is worth experimenting with headings and fully utilizing their potential.

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#2 Marie-L. Flacke wrote at Wed, Sep 24 answer homepage

In case you doubt the above example does help the user find the needed information, check minimalist-doc.blogspot.fr/2014/09/whats-in-minimalism-workshop.html

 

BTW, how many occurences of the "This is how it works"-title do you expect in a 300-page manual???

#1 Marie-L. Flacke wrote at Mon, Sep 15 answer homepage

Providing clear instructions with unambiguous titles while respecting your end-user is a challenge. Check minimalist-doc.blogspot.fr/2014/09/whats-in-minimalism-workshop.html

Comments are more than welcome!