Banner blindness and technical documentation

We had an interesting discussion in our team at Atlassian this week, about framed, decorated boxes containing tips, warnings and notes. Should we use them? I’d seen some user testing results that suggest people don’t read content in such boxes. Another writer pointed out that the tests didn’t focus on technical documentation specifically, and that people may expect and therefore take notice of  framed notes in technical documentation.

The research is by Jakob Nielsen, a well-known designer of user interfaces:

I found both articles enlightening, with their focus on tracking the eye movements of the test subjects. In particular, the videos are worth watching.

How to highlight notes if not in boxes?

User testing shows that people skim a page by jumping from heading to heading. One way to bring notes to their attention is therefore to have a “Notes” heading, followed by bullet-pointed notes.

If a note contains more than a sentence or two, it’s probably worthy of its own heading and short section.

What about speech bubbles?

Anne Gentle wrote about drawing speech bubbles in your documentation, to bring particular items to a reader’s attention. She’s using CSS to draw the bubbles. Very cool! Anne’s post led me to wonder if people are more likely to read content that’s in speech bubbles rather than rectangular boxes. Perhaps we’re conditioned to notice speech bubbles, and to think of them as likely to contain information that’s relevant and easily consumable.

What do you think?

This is such an interesting topic! I’d love to know the thoughts of other technical writers and of people who read documentation. Do you tend to ignore words enclosed in boxes? Have you done or seen any user testing that indicates whether people unconsciously skip over notes in framed, decorated boxes? Can we “train” our readers to read such blocks of content, by consistently using the same format for notes and warnings? But then, what if our documentation is web-based and so every page is page one, as Mark Baker so eloquently puts it – will the reader who comes surfing in off the ad-riddled web be conditioned to ignore text in boxes?


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 10 June 2013, in technical writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Kelly M. McDaniel

    I have wrangled with this topic over the years and have yet to come to a conclusion regarding the best method to draw attention to important text within user documentation. So far, I like the panels within Confluence. The problem is when more than one discrete bit of important information on a single page is a candidate for a panel. The effect of overuse is that it actually de-emphasizes the content.

    • Hallo Kelly

      Nice to see you. 🙂 Great point, about overuse de-emphasising the content. The next thing would be to decide how much is too much. For example, would it be OK to have one panel per page, or should we limit ourselves to very few over the entire documentation suite?

      One convention we’ve used before, is to put the less important information into “hint” boxes. These are “extras” that are handy to know, but not essential to the information on the page.


  2. We had a document project for a government department who loved the fact that we’d put the key policy information inside boxes.

    It was because the coloured background of the boxes made it easier for staff with dyslexia to read the text.

    • Hallo Ellis
      That’s an interesting perspective indeed. I wonder, was it the fact that the coloured boxes were different from the main text, that made it easier, or should all the text have a coloured background to make it easier for people with dyslexia?
      Cheers, Sarah

  3. Hi, Sarah,! Very interesting topic. From my experience (and I’m more a reader than a writer), the most important thing is the text inside the box. If a) it’s clear, concise and doesn’t contain ‘marketese’, and b) if the ‘decor’ part is not overdone, I won’t see it as a banner.

    But banner or not, a box always breaks the content flow. As a reader I hate to fish out regular text bits between the boxes 🙂

    May be if writers used more ‘inline’ ways of emphasis, like icons or text background, the docs would be more readable? And the boxes could convey only the most important information, that really ‘stands out’ of text?

    • Hallo Sasha

      That’s a great point, that it’s annoying when you are forced to skip over the boxes just to keep the flow of the normal text. It makes me think we should put the boxes off to one side, perhaps in a margin.

      Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

  4. Nice post Sarah, thanks for sharing.

    I’m just compiling some training material within a Confluence space. I’ve got a standard set of icons to signify instructions for the trainees, class questions, etc. We also use the info macro to draw attention to important information. However, I have been on the look out for something else to support anecdotal information related to the training topic. I think the speech bubbles would be excellent here, as they reinforce the “personal experience” aspect of this information, which comes from in-house experts. Really easy to use this in Confluence too (thanks to the Adaptavist Content Formatting macros plugin).

    • Hallo Charles
      Awesome! I’m so glad you like Anne’s speech bubbles. What a lovely idea, to emphasise the personal experience aspect. Your idea of using standard icons sounds great too. When you’re ready, perhaps you’d like to post a link to the docs?
      Cheers, Sarah

  5. This is a great topic, Sarah. Thanks for bringing it up. I don’t have empirical proof but I’m pretty sure that I do suffer from banner blindness, as Nielsen describes it. I also think that it’s grown more acute over time, as first magazines and then websites increased the number of highlights and other graphical elements.

    My recommendation would be like Sasha’s: when emphasis is needed, keep it inline and don’t overdo the “decor.” I also like the work that’s being done with progressive disclosure, where the reader can choose the supplementary information they want to read.

    • Hallo Larry

      Great points! Perhaps we also tend to increase the banner blindness in our readers, by adding side panels for navigation, top panels for menu options, bottom panels for related topics… I certainly find myself homing in on the plain, readable text. The good old bullet list, with bold words indicating the key points, are usually a good indication of the meat of a topic. 🙂


  6. Hi Sarah,

    I also have banner blindness, but I don’t place boxes like Notes and Warnings in the same category as ad banners. However, I think that sometimes we use Notes to present information that could be presented in a better way. I cringe whenever I see “stacked” Note boxes on a page.

    I think that this issue would make a great user test. I’ll put such a test on my list of action items and let you know if/when we run it.


    • Hallo Melody 🙂

      I’d love to hear the results of that user testing! Interestingly, I was running a writing workshop for a group of HR people within our company this week. We chatted a bit about banner blindness, and the responses differed from person to person. Some people say their eyes are drawn immediately to text in boxes, because they know that’s likely to be the most important. Others said they read the main body of the page. Of course, what people say isn’t necessarily what they do. 🙂

      Good point about stacked boxes. We sometimes do have a number of notes on a page, but then the tech writers put them in a bullet list under a heading like “notes” or “before you start”. Other people who update our docs, such as the support engineers or developers, do tend to stack note and warning boxes merrily.


  7. I’ve also seen research that suggested that using frightening warning symbols beside cautionary text can discourage people from reading the warning. I think there was a case where people didn’t read safety notices beside a swimming pool because they were upset by the stick figure of a drowning child.

    But I also recall reading that, while people might be less likely to read pulled-out warning text, it helps to be able to point to it when you get to court.

    We use lots of cautionary notes and warnings, although we also try to use inline warnings as well. I think of the inline warnings as being for the readers, and the bright red “don’t cut your hand off” boxes with the lurid graphic as being for the lawyers.

    • Hallo Julia

      Ha ha, what a great comment! It made me think of our own “warning” boxes, which currently have an icon of a no-entry sign. That’s the default icon which Confluence wiki uses for a warning message. Sometimes it has occurred to me, when seeing a warning box at the top of a page, that it seems to tell people “Don’t enter here”. When in actual fact, we really do want them to enter the page and read the information. It should say, “Come in, there’s some really important stuff for you to know”.


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