What are headings?
Headings are the titles and section names that provide structure for a document or webpage. Headings are usually visually styled to appear larger, bolded, italicized, and/or underlined to draw the eye. This helps sighted users quickly skim the document and jump to the section they want to read.
Why are headings important?
Headings can significantly improve the navigational ease and usability of your document for a variety of users.
For screen reader users, headings are one of the primary methods they may use to navigate within a web page or document. A screen reader can announce all of the headings in a document, which lets its users quickly skim the page in a similar way to how a visual reader might glance over the large bolded text on a page to identify the important words or ideas before starting to read in detail.
Screen reader users can also use headings to quickly jump to a particular section of a document or page. This is similar to how sighted users will scroll through a document until they spot the section in which they are interested. Imagine reading a book without any chapter headings and trying to find a specific section of the book just by skimming through the pages. A document without headings can be similarly difficult to navigate for screen reader users.
Headings are also useful for individuals with disabilities who have difficulty organizing content or keeping track of where they are within the subject matter. They can be used by individuals with executive functioning difficulties to regulate their progress through a document or keep them on track with a particular task.
How do I add headings to a document?
1. Decide which pieces of text should become the headings for your document
Headings should reflect the structure and organization of the document. Think of headings like a table of contents; the reader should be able to understand the general organization and sections of a document by reading through its headings.
The process of tagging headings varies for every content creation platform, but is usually fairly simple. Typically it involves selecting the text for a heading and then selecting the appropriate heading level from a menu or pane.
2. Decide which level each heading should be
Every heading is assigned a numerical level from 1-6 to indicate its relative importance or scope compared to other headings on the page.
- The most important and broadest topic of a document (the title) is tagged as a heading level 1. This means there is usually only one heading level 1 per document.
- The primary sections of your document should be tagged as heading level 2. Any sub-sections of those heading 2 topics will be heading 3s, and so on.
- Headings should only increase by one level at a time; never skip a level by nesting a heading 4 directly underneath a heading 2, for example.
Avoid selecting a particular heading level solely for the visual styling it provides; instead, ensure you select a level that fits within the hierarchy of the document. You should also avoid using more than 6 heading levels in a document to ensure the structure is not overly complex to navigate.
Here is an example of good heading structure; note how each more specific heading level is a subsection of the heading under which it is nested:
- H1: Department Name
- H2: Courses
- H3: Undergraduate Courses
- H3: Graduate Courses
- H2: Faculty
- H2: Students
- H3: Undergraduate Students
- H3: Graduate Students
- H2: Courses
3. Apply the appropriate heading style to the text
Consult the following tutorials for different content platforms: