March 19, 2012
Chunking and organizing: headings
Microsoft Word has built-in styles for up to 9 levels of headings. It makes me think that someone wanted to be very sure that customers did not call Tech Support complaining about running out of heading levels. But it also horrifies me because, gah, 9 levels of headings?!?
Headings serve two purposes: chunking and organization. To generalize madly, the organizational aspect benefits writers, and the chunking aspect benefits readers. I've seen examples of both that I think are not doing it right.
Chunking: good. It's pretty well established that readers who are looking for information don't prefer long stretches of text. Chunking the text makes it easier to scan and provides some textual relief.
This can be overdone, tho. If you find yourself with headings that have one or two sentences each, maybe you're not really doing the reader much of a favor. Here's an example — look under Event Subscriptions. Does this section really need three subheads?
A more common problem I see is heading levels used to excess. In a long document, it does help (the writer for sure) to establish a hierarchy that reflects the organization of the material. I recently worked on a What's New document that runs about 46 printed pages and that features 3 levels of headings. (The table of contents (TOC) at the top shows a bird's-eye view of the structure.)
A problem with web-based content, tho, is when the user is flailing about in the middle of a long piece of content, heading levels are often not obvious. The reader has a sort of keyhole view of the text, and web pages are often missing the types of cues that a book reader might have (like running headers or bleed tabs) to help them suss out where within the content organization they might be. (Web pages often don't use indentation to mark content hierarchy, either.) If the content is linked dynamically to a TOC, that's great. But that's also rare.
One possible solution is to use "scientific" headings that use numbers (1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1, etc.) to mark heading levels. There's a good example in the Ruby on Rails Tutorial by Michael Hartl.
Note carefully that even tho Hartl's piece is book length, he never uses more than 3 heading levels. Because the book is delivered as separate chapters (one chapter per web page), in effect Hartl is really only using two levels in any given chapter/document. Hartl uses headings both as an organization principle and for chunking, and gets it right for both.
I maintain — perhaps because I am not all that good with nested-level stuff myself — that readers don't really cope well with anything beyond a third level. When I see anything beyond a heading level 3, I start getting very nervous on behalf of the user. If I see heading level 5, I start rending my garments.
More practically, I also start editing these headings away. Turns out this is rarely a problem. When I see heading levels 4 and 5 in a document, it almost always means that the writer is thinking too hierarchically and is forgetting that the reader is probably not subconsciously nested down there with the author at the 5th level.
So: use headings intelligently. Break up the text with headings. But don't impose a burden on readers to have to mentally keep track of where in your convoluted structure they are.