Miller Center

How to Communicate on the Web


My name is Amber Lautigar Reichert and I’m a web developer with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The Miller Center focuses on study of the presidency and seeks to apply lessons of history to modern life.

In the course of building, we’ve interviewed many organizations who had questions about best practices when it comes to web communication. This video is intended provide some general guidelines for improving your organization’s online presence.

With the complexity of many modern organizations, one of the most common challenges facing web teams today is the fight against chaos.

A chaotic website divides your users’ attention and hurts your user experience, which means visitors can get frustrated and leave with a negative feeling about your organization as a whole. They may even not return again! But a positive user experience leads to repeat visitors, word-of-mouth publicity, and even can lead to better visibility in search engine results.

In this video I’ll cover 5 areas that will help you improve your presence online:

1: Think of your users FIRST
2: Set clear goals
3: Tailor content for web
4: Adopt clear language
5: Use balanced calls to action

I’ll talk more about these in a moment.

But we all know how it happens: growth over time can easily lead to clumsy or overly complex websites.

You start with a beautiful website, but then your organization grows! So you add new things.

But what about this new special project, where will we put that?

We should definitely make social media more prominent

… and you can end up pretty far from the clean design you started with.

Here are a few guidelines for keeping the chaos at bay.

1) Think of your users FIRST
This is by far the most important thing. A good website is built thinking first and foremost about its users. Your first question for any site updates should be: How will this affect my site visitors? Maybe it make the site faster or more pleasant to interact with, or makes popular information easier to access.

Often, though, it’s more complicated. For example, we may want to put a donate button in giant red letters on the home page, or to force visitors to read about a new project before they can access the content they’re used to. Proceed very cautiously with things like this. Remember that people visiting your site are busy, distracted, and they have the whole internet at their fingertips. If they get frustrated or confused on your site, they’re very likely to simply leave and go elsewhere. But when we build websites with users’ needs in mind, they stay longer on the site, return more often, and retain a positive view of the organization as a whole.

If our visitors’ attention is so fragile, how should we make changes to our websites? Generally the best way is to have these two questions in your mind:
What do my users want from this site?
and how can I deliver it to them in the fastest, clearest way?

As long as updates or changes to your site aren’t getting in the way of those priorities, fire away! Your visitors will be pleased to find what they’re looking for… and enticed to stay longer as you add new content and build a richer user experience.

2) Set clear goals
A website simply cannot do everything at the same time. Remember the chaotic website in the beginning of this video? Not having site goals is the quickest way to a chaotic site. Here are some common goals for websites. Remember: it’s immensely important that you prioritize.

The best websites have a very short list of prioritized goals and all decisions about the site are made with those goals in mind. Lets look at a few examples.

Click each image above to zoom.

Netflix ( )

Netflix (the popular video streaming service) might have chosen any number of priorities for this home page: they could’ve chosen to highlight new custom television shows, or encourage users to upgrade their service.

But instead, with the presence of this very prominent tag line and call to action, they’ve clearly chosen to use this space to encourage new customers to sign up. And in fact, if you scroll down, nearly all the content on this home page is relevant to that ONE goal.

Wikipedia (

Wikipedia a little more nuanced. Out of all the priorities we listed earlier, their top goal seems to be answering the question, “What does this site do?”

While the site is a little busy (and certainly text-heavy), most pieces of content on this page are reinforcing that goal: there’s a very short tag line, there are popular topics to browse, and specific entries are featured based on news and historic anniversaries.

The periphery of the page is used to serve secondary goals, but the main field of vision is dedicated to showing you (rather than telling) about the purpose of the site. Secondary actions are relegated to the de-emphasized edges of the page. ( has gotten a lot of attention because of its initial tough rollout, but because of that I think they’ve built a pretty great site.

What this site does really well is cater to its users’ interests above all else. There are a LOT of topics that could be prioritized here: the shifting legislation, specific medical plans, or even just a basic “What does this program do?” informational presentation. But what they’ve chosen to do instead is highlight common users questions—and let that content show what the site does (rather than telling it explicitly with a large mission statement or explanatory video).

This is most evident in the mobile version of the site. A mobile version of a website is where an organization has to make the most (and hardest) decisions about what matters. (Because of that, it’s actually a great place to start your content planning!) is actually a HUGE site. They certainly have audiences other than people looking for health care information. But, because connecting people to plans is their main goal, they’ve relegated those secondary audiences to a less prominent place—at the bottom of the page are references for Agents & Brokers, the Media, Researchers, etc. Their priorities are crystal clear!

Remember: if you’re not sure what your site is supposed to accomplish, your visitors won’t be either.

3) Tailor content for web

It’s tempting to take content we create for print materials and simply paste them on to the web. But with a little finesse, those materials can get a lot more mileage online. Here are a few tips:

Use short paragraphs

Reading on a computer or a mobile device is very different from reading a paper format. For one, your reader is probably distracted. They’re on the train, or on their iPad in front of the TV, or even sitting at a stoplight. Keeping paragraphs no longer than 3-4 sentences makes your content easier to digest, helping hold visitors’ attention longer and keep them engaged in your content.

Use short line widths

Text that goes the whole width of the screen is hard to read… not to mention it’s hard to keep track of as you go to a new line. Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast rule for this. At the time of this video best practice is probably to keep your line width 700 pixels wide or smaller. But devices change as time goes on so I’ll simply return to our first point and recommend that you ask yourself: How can I make this text as easy as possible for my users to read?

Respect your users’ time

Our visitors’ attention is split in a thousand different ways and we have a very short window in which to make a positive impression. Think about how you might make your content digestible. Can you use subheadings? Subheadings or appropriate images mean a visitor can glance away and easily find their place again. Can you use simpler language to describe something? What are the most popular pieces of content? Are there ways you can make those easier to find?

4) Adopt clear language

If you’re like me, you probably have internal names or acronyms for your departments, projects, and collections that might not totally be clear to someone outside your organization. This is especially relevant when you’re designing your site’s navigation. I’ll give an example:

The Lunch Library has 3 departments: the cheese department, the condiment department, and the sandwich department. The Library might choose to organize its website based off of those 3 divisions: cheese, condiments, and sandwiches.

But if i’m visiting the site, and i want more information about grilled cheese sandwiches… what do I visit? Grilled cheese is a sandwich so maybe I visit the Sandwich department. But it’s a cheese sandwich so maybe I visit the Cheese department?

Obviously this is a fictional example. But how might you help the Lunch Library do better? The answer is to think externally, not internally. It probably doesn’t matter to a visitor whether Jane Doe is a cheese scholar or a sandwich scholar… they just want to know how to find out more information about lunch. Perhaps a search function would help, or putting all scholars in the same place on the site? If there are popular lunch questions, the Lunch Library could put links to information about those lunches on their home page.

It all comes back to the same refrain: how do I make this as clear and easy as possible for my site visitors?

5) Use balanced calls to action
There’s one remaining challenge that I bet we’ve all encountered: Sometimes we need to get things from our users. Whether it’s a donation, or an email signup, or for them to share on social media… we’re hoping that their attention will help us meet our goals.

I’ll say first that the very best way to do this is through a positive user experience. If someone thinks highly of your site, they’re more likely to support it!

But what if we want to be more aggressive? It’s tempting to block access to our site content before someone creates an account, or signs up for our email list. It’s also tempting to wallpaper a site with a call to action in hopes of getting message across. But these methods can be very disruptive to the user experience… and annoyance is not something that often leads to conversions.

But the very best way is to ask yourself: how can I make my users want to take this action?

Perhaps you can offer a tangible reason, like membership benefits. But intangible benefits work too: including your users in accomplishing your mission can go a long way. For example, asking a visitor to, “Help us expand into local schools!” can be much more effective than simply saying, “Donate now!”

Put yourself in your users’ shoes: why would I want to do this? The better you can make that case, the more conversions you’ll have!

Providing powerful motivators, clear labeling, and content that’s easy and pleasant to consume goes a long way to building confidence and respect with your visitors. It’s much easier to present a call to action when you know you have a satisfied audience!

Clearly articulating your site’s goals is one of the hardest challenges but it’s also one of the most important. If all of your content is pushing in the same direction, you’re much more likely to meet your goals.

One last word of warning: this process is never easy. But it is absolutely worth the effort.

Thanks for watching!