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Effective headings

1. In the FCC study of rules for radios on pleasure boats, people were able to find information much faster in the version that had questions as headings than in the version that had nouns or noun phrases as headings. That says that questions are easier for people than just nouns. It doesn’t say that questions are always the best heading.

2. In a study that Veda Charrow and I did of headings in warranties, we compared two versions of several warranties. All were written with clear sentences and easy words. For each warranty, there was one version with no headings and one version with six headings:

  • Who is covered?
  • What is covered?
  • What is not covered?
  • What(Company) will do and for how long
  • What you must do
  • How to get warranty service
  • (Today, I would in fact redo these as all questions for the sake of parallelism—see #6.)

People read one or the other version of each warranty and then answered 12 questions using the warranty. We found that people were able to find the right answer even in the warranties with no headings—but they didn’t like those. 90% of the 48 people who participated in the test chose the warranties with the headings as “easiest to read and understand” and as the one that they would be “more motivated to use and pay attention to.”

That study says that even in a very short document like a half-page warranty, people find headings useful. Note that some of these headings are questions, some are phrases —but they are not just nouns, they have personal pronouns and verbs in them.

3. Questions are better as headings than are nouns or noun phrases. People come to documents with questions so raising the question creates that link that helps users say “yes, this is where I want to be; this is what I need to read.” Often, writers don’t get the noun headings in a logical order. Thinking of questions as headings helps writers put the information into a logical order. Noun headings are also often misleading: Would a heading like “Eligible Loan Participants” refer to borrowers or to banks? “Who is eligible to apply” is much clearer.

4. My conclusion from all my research is that headings need to make connections to the user. Single nouns or noun phrases that have no people and no verbs in them do not do well as headings. However, this does not mean that questions are always the best type of heading. Other types of headings that work well are

  • verb phrases like
  • Filling out the Application
  • sentences like
  • You Must Get a Permit to Operate a Center
  • and even phrases that have pronouns and verbs
  • What You Must Do First

All of these help users connect to the text and cue the user better than nouns do. In a user’s manual, people are trying to do tasks—actions. Actions are verbs. Verb phrases are the best headings for sections that relate to procedures. Sometimes verb phrases would make good headings for procedural sections of rules.

5. Writing a good verb heading

One point that comes from a study my group did is that verb phrases should start with the action verb and not with “how to.” The problem is that if you have a series of steps and you start each heading with “how to,” you get something like this:

  • How to get a permit
  • How to fill out the permit
  • How to change your address

In our study, we found that when the headings all started with “how to,” users could not easily find the right section because their eyes stayed on the “how to” and all the headings seemed the same. When the headings were

  • Getting a permit
  • Filling out the permit
  • Changing your address

users could see the different actions right away.

6. One issue that writers need to consider is that we also want to strive for parallelism in the way we write the headings in a particular section of the rules at a particular level of heading. It takes more mental energy to switch back and forth in understanding when the structure of the headings keeps changing. If the structure changes with the level that’s okay because it in fact helps users understand the document—the change from one structure to another signals a change from top level to subtopic. So, one of the reasons to use questions in regulations is parallelism. Once we start with a question, it is easier for users if we keep going with questions, like this:

  • Do I need a permit?
  • How do I get a permit?
  • What information do I need to put on the permit?
  • What if my address changes?

If we mix questions and verb phrases, it seems more confusing, as in this example:

  • Do I need a permit?
  • Getting a permit
  • Filling out the permit
  • What if my address changes?

So, I like to suggest that we find the best structure for headings for a particular level of heading in each major part of a regulation. One possible structure, for example, would be questions at the top level, but then verb phrases for the sub-topics, like this:

  • Do I need a permit?
  • How do I get a permit?
  • Applying for a permit
  • Filling out the application form
  • Signing the application form
  • Sending in the application form
  • What do I do if I change my address?
  • Are permits renewable?
  • Arranging for a renewal

One consideration in writing questions is being concise. I originally wrote:

  • What do I need to do to get a permit?

Then I looked at that and said “too long,” so I rewrote it as:

  • How do I get a permit?