Reactions to Using Bold
These are some of the reactions to my discussion about using bold text to aid skimming discussed in my item January 20, 2000, about meeting with Dan Gillmor.

Dan Gillmor started January 21, 2000, to use bold to aid skimming. He writes about it there, and includes a note from usability expert Jakob Nielsen linking to Jakob's 1997 study of reading and skimming. I find that I can now skim Dan's material much better.

After seeing Jakob's comments on Dan's eJournal, I wrote the following to Jakob Nielsen:

The technique I'm using ( http://danbricklin.com/log ) and that I believe Dan is trying to follow is to use bold phrases within the prose so that you can skim and just read those phrases to get the basic idea. Bold is not used for emphasis that only makes sense in context. Is that a valid use? Or does it get in the way enough? I find that the bold does slow my full reading, but lets me skim a long set of articles much faster if I don't have time. Any guidance other than your article?

Jakob Nielsen replied:

I agree that there is a trade-off, which is why I don't recommend highlighting too long phrases. But on balance, the evidence favors making the text scannable since scanning is the dominant user behavior.

The highlighted keywords have an additional goal besides giving people the gist of the story. It also pulls them in and allows them to read selectively: once the eye is stopped by a highlighted item, the user may decide to read the full paragraph. Of course, they will also often decide to continue scanning, but one of the design criteria for highlighting should be to aid users in selective reading.

Note that I use the term highlighting rather than bold-facing, since there are various techniques that can be used. I prefer the HTML tag <STRONG> for highlighting (rendered as bold-face by GUI browsers), but some people use different colors or a different background color (like drawing a yellow magic marker across the text). I usually warn against colored text since users may think it's a hypertext link.
Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D.
User Advocate and principal, Nielsen Norman Group

What others had to say:
I got comments from some people who find that the bold attracts their eyes making it harder to read straight through, something I understand and feel myself. I am, though, trying to balance that with the needs of my readers that don't have time to read it all and my desire to be heard at least a bit.

I assume the readers who skim did not see my request for comments, so the comments I receive may be skewed...

I also got comments from Stan Krute who wrote:

Hi Dan

I liked your discussion of bolding in weblogs in your Dan Gillmor article.

I've been using bolding on my http://McCainsNavy.org site news-discussion site. It is tough to resist bolding too much. I often iterate: bold too much at first, then cut back on it, til it still works. Lately I think of bolding as being akin to writing Incredible Hulk dialog ("Hulk angry")

I'm also starting to use colored bolding, which is trickier due to the fact that people are often badly set-up colorwise on their PCs (it'll be easier when we can safely assume that 90% of the audience is viewing the web at 16-bits of color and up).

I always liked John Dvorak's use of bolding in his writings. Comic books have used it, usually well, for years.

(In that regard: One of the few problems with Jack Kirby's comix once he started doing his own scripting was that he had no sense of verbal rhythm when it came to bolding comic book dialog. Stan Lee, on the other hand, is a master of comic script bolding.)
-Stan Krute

My response:

A comment. You seem to follow the Dvorak style of bolding a word for emphasis, which still requires reading the whole thing but adds personality. For literarily-challenged people like me, using extra tools like font to get across feelings is something I understand. I'm trying to be a bit different and let the bold stand on their own without ever reading the material around it. Is that difference showing or have I missed it entirely?

Stan's response:

Hi DanB

> A comment. You seem to follow the Dvorak style of
> bolding a word for emphasis, which still requires
> reading the whole thing but adds personality.

Yes, albeit with an idea that the individual words that I bold for rhythm and emphasis also provide a lower-reptilian-brain strikers-placard Hulk-consciousness summary.

> I'm trying to be a bit different
> and let the bold stand on their own without ever
> reading the material around it. Is that difference showing

Yes. And it is quite useful.

Having many scales of verbal entry into a piece of information is a good thing, as Martha might opine.

In that regard: I worked on the initial design of a magazine called Home Power (for small alternative energy users) years ago. One of my mishegahses was that there be a subhead every two or 3 paragraphs in their articles. The subheads were to be pithy clever summaries of the next 2 or 3 paragraphs, so that someone could scan the article's subheads and get the gist of the data.


This helped me understand the difference between bold for emphasis and bold for skimming.

To take the winds out of my sails about that, though, I received this from Will Fitzgerald:

I believe Nielsen when he says people don't read on the web, they skim. I no longer believe, though, that "bold to skim" is the right thing to do. Although it may assist people in skimming, it doesn't provide enough context to allow readers to jump into the articles.

It also tends to make for choppy and boring reading: imagine reading the following 'article' (which is just the bolded part of your log from January 20).

Dan Gillmor was in New England earlier this week.
We talked about web logs.
How great it would be if other types of reporters would keep a web journal.
We talked about personal web sites becoming more common.
I use lots of techniques that I use lots of techniques inspired by my "Good Documents" web site.
I bold topic phrases so you can just read them and get the major ideas.
It takes self control to keep the amount of bolding to a minimum.

Then, imagine that you could start reading at any one of these points. Now, confusing sets in... who is the 'we' of the 2nd line? What does 'other types of reporters' refer to? What does the Zen saying "It takes self control to keep the amount of bolding to a minimum." mean?

There are lots of good ideas at the gooddocuments.com web site--thanks! I don't think that "bold to skim" is one of those ideas.

I responded:

Thanks for your comments! So, does that mean that you read the whole thing and that the bold is in the way and not helping so I can save the time and not do it? Should I drop it? Hmm. What other, "takes little time" technique would work for those that don't? (I do try to make summary headlines instead of just catchy ones -- I slip sometimes.)

Will responded:

I'm sure you're aware of Pascal's famous statement that he didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long letter instead. So I'm not sure there is a 'takes little time' technique.


Summary headlines + short paragraphs + use topic sentences

Using bolded topic phrases at the beginning of sentences can be effective yet still ameliorate the disconcerting effects.

I attempted to rewrite your January 20th log in this style. The results can be found at:

(Caveats: I lost your caption for the picture--a great idea, by the way, and some of the links).

I received other comments from Jay Ashworth:

I've just started on this weblog track, myself (Baylink), and yours is one of my daily reads.  I don't remember which of my other daily reads made the point that there are really two categories of weblogs: ones written for the reader, and ones written for the _writer_.  I suspect the latter will turn out to be more popular, in the long run, counter-intuitive as that may seem.

We're not -- many of us -- after _news_; that's not hard to find.  What many of us are looking for -- I know I'm one -- is other people's _opinions_ on the news; that's what helps us form and tune our gestalt on the world around us and what's going on in it.

To that end, I _don't_ bold, and the reason is that _I consider how I say it to be just as important as what I say_.  Those people who aren't interested enough in what I say to read the whole thing?  That's ok; they have my permission to go read someone else's log.  I won't be offended.  I'm looking for a small core of regular readers who want to hear what I have to say.  I know they're out there.  318 new visits out of 401 hits in 2 weeks tells me that I have some people who think the content can stand on it's own.  (Gee; that's a touch too close to sounding derogatory, isn't it?  Sorry 'bout that...)

Personally, I wish there was a demi-bold available, I have to read _around_ your boldface; it's a bit annoying in Verdana; that's the only thing it _doesn't_ seem to do well.

Keep up the good work.

-- jra

My reply:

I'm kind of torn: I just looked at your web log -- quite interesting, but when I tried to skim it, it was very hard. Looking back at a few days at once, I didn't have the time to read it all but I wanted to understand the main idea in each of your pieces. But, I don't like reading around bold either.

Jay's reply:

The old problem: working around the limitations of the medium in the most appropriate -- most gracefully degrading -- way possibly while still achieving the desired functionality.

Yes, I'll admit it is difficult to skim.  At some point, when I've automated the production a bit, I plan to write deckheads for the longer pieces, which might help a bit.  The database he runs doesn't have the appropriate fields; I'm already breaking things a bit to do it the way I do...

You might find the webloggers egroup mailing list interesting, too, if you haven't already heard of it...

Dave Winer posted a link to here on scripting.com January 22, 2000, saying "I think boldface is for wimpy writers, no matter what Jakob Nielsen's studies show. I write for readers not skimmers." A thread reacting to this and Dan Gillmor's statements starts with Dan Lyke's posting.

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