Writing numbers on the Web
[17 Apr 2007]
Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox article today, Show Numbers as Numerals, is interesting for those of us who need to communicate mathematics via the Web.
After conducting eye-tracking research on Web users, Nielsen points out the differences between numeral writing for print (“Don’t begin sentences with a numeral, use words instead”) and the Web (use a numeral).
A key thing here is that most users scan Web pages and rarely read everything. (Actually, isn’t that true of print these days, as well?)
Nielsen raises the following interesting point:
Instead, [Web users] scan the text and pick out headlines, highlighted words, bulleted lists, and links. [...] There are a few exceptions to this rule: lower-literacy users can’t scan, while higher-literacy users read the entire page if they’re really interested or in desperate need of the information.
I’ve noticed this – many students have trouble quickly scanning a page and gleaning the main facts.
Back to numbers and numerals vs words. What came to mind was my page on Scientific Notation, where I extol the advantages of a more convenient way to write large numbers.
I’m glad Nielsen mentions the difference between US “billions” and other-country “billions”.
There’s also an internationalization issue here: “billion” represents a thousand millions in American English, but a million millions in many European languages.
We really should standardise (oops, I mean standardize) the usage of “billion”, “trillion” and the like.
In summary, I wonder why we bother writing complete sentences – does anyone read everything…?