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I find myself writing quite a lot of articles, user manual-like documents, as well as posting hundreds of questions on stackexchange sites.

Over time, I developed a certain style of writing, which uses bold letters to emphasize keywords, and key questions. I do so, because I found that users often fail to see the key points that I'm trying to make. I find myself figuring out, what is the main question that I want to ask, and mark it in bold. Does using bold font improve readability of text for first time reader?

When I write a document that is about 10 pages long (nicely formatted with section titles, table of contents and such), I still find myself wanting to bold the key points. I'm interested in learning if using bold fonts improve readability of documents that may be read more than once, such as user manuals.

Maybe there are some professional copywriter or technical writer blogs, etc, that deal with this style of writing? I don't want to overdo it.

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This is an interesting question. There's also got to be some similarity (though there may be differences) between emphasis on websites - and emphasis in longer documents. –  PhillipW Nov 6 '12 at 13:16
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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I don't have references to hand, and Google is failing me, but my (very fallible) recollection is that:

  • bold text inline decreases reading speed / legibility

  • bold text increases "scannability" when searching since folk can easily find the bolded text

There are, of course, other options to highlight key points that will help readers find the important text than bold.

For example bullet points;

  • highlight key points
  • help readers find important text

without the same typographic distractions. Sidebars and other marginal notations are also commonly used. I know at least one TA who says that the urge to use bold text to highlight is an indication that she needs to rewrite for clarity.


If you want to dig into technical writing more I recommend you take a look at the Society for Technical Communication (http://www.stc.org/). There's also an STC UX SIG with a mailing list that's open non-STC members (bias warning: I'm the list moderator ;-) You may find some folk on that list who have more knowledge about this specifically.

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To add a reference and endorse @adrianh's answer, the ever-helpful Jakob Nielsen wrote 'How Users Read on the Web' useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html back in 1997. A quick read around that site gives other examples/hints/guidance. –  DaveP Nov 6 '12 at 13:08
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Another reference you might find useful: The Yahoo Style Guide has an article about User-Instruction Mechanics, which is often used in manuals. –  Pep López Nov 6 '12 at 20:24
    
Very good reading, exactly what I needed, thanks! –  Alex Stone Nov 7 '12 at 3:22
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The general design theory seems to be that people don't like to read, so we should let them get what they need and get out. Highlight key factors, so they can find what's important more easily.

But this just teaches users that much of what we have to say is just not valuable.

Also, focusing on only the key aspects allows readers to ignore the transitions in language which help people understand.

We see this in many video games, most notably MMOs. By telling people simply what they need to know (go here, do this) they are more than willing ignore the main text entirely. Most just glance at the objectives. This is passable in a game environment where the only point is to chase the carrot on a stick. However, this is not acceptable when you need people to understand what they're doing.

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In my experience, your biggest problem is a lack of motivaiton to read, and no amount of formatting can fix that.

Still in my personal experience:

  • give keywords and application-specific terms (like button titles) a distinct formatting
  • give key points a distinct paragraph formatting.

Bold works well for directing attention, but not for phrases. So I'd italic or monospace the keywords and give the key points a distinct format:


From the menu, select Extras / Examples / Advanced / Rabid Tiger. After the model is loaded, use the customization controls to modify the appearance.

Warning: if you later choose the Print (3D) and Animate option for this model, make sure your immunizations are up to date.


Rationale: the slight modification of the fond helps the user identify which words/labels to look for in the actual application, without breaking text flow.

Indentation and bold "label" make the key point stand out and help attract attention, and can help structuring the page.

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People/users don't like to read. Readability is the ease in which text can be read and understood. Using bold for key points is good not for readability but to emphasize the word or the sentence. The user most likely would read the text that stand out (bolder, different colour).

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