When creating content for our newly reimagined websites, the USAGov content team spent many hours researching topics, analyzing data, and writing user-friendly copy. We also spent a fair bit of time thinking through one small, but impactful detail: What is the best case style to use for titles and headings?
A simple Google search for sentence case vs. title case reveals more than 400 million results, with no clear indication of which one provides the optimal user experience. The previous version of the English USA.gov website used title case (Capitalizing Every Major Word in the Title), while the earlier version of our Spanish-language site, USAGov en Español, used sentence case (Only capitalizing the first word and proper names).
We had a general sense that using sentence case was more conversational and on trend for modern websites. But we wanted to do a deeper analysis of the trade-offs before making our decision. We gathered information from a number of blog posts, journal articles, and style guides. We also studied accessibility recommendations and examined how our own customer data fit with what we were learning.
One question we considered is what casing style might be most familiar to our audience. Older users tend to be more accustomed to title case on websites, while millennials and younger users may be more accustomed to sentence case from commercial websites and social media.
Analytic data showed that 63% of the users on USA.gov are aged 18-44, which gave a slight edge to possibly using sentence case.
Geographical location and languages
School children in the United States often have title case drilled into them during English class. But as this UX design blog post points out, title case is rarely used in the rest of the world. About 14% of our English-language audience comes from outside the U.S.
Title case is rarely used for languages besides English. In Spanish, sentence case is grammatically correct, so we would continue to use it for USAGov en Español. We also knew that about 20% of the U.S. population speaks languages other than English at home.
We hoped to find a definitive answer to whether sentence case or title case is easier to read, but the opinions on that front appeared to be mixed. One thing was clear: bigger is better. A research study on text legibility notes an advantage for title case and upper-case letters as they appear larger and easier to read for people with low vision.
However, sentence case may make sense for longer strings of text. As this UX Planet blog points out, eliminating capital letters can make it easier for users to skim over longer-form text. In many cases, these longer strings of text might be partial or complete sentences where sentence case would read as more grammatically correct to users.
Like readability, we could not find a definitive answer on whether title case or sentence case would be more accessible. Our accessibility expert confirmed that screen readers would announce either style properly.
While title case may be slightly more accessible for people with low vision, we found one scientific review that recommends avoiding title case for readers with dyslexia.
Voice and tone
USAGov websites aim to be both friendly and authoritative. We were already using active voice and writing in the second person (you/your) in our web copy. Sentence case seemed like a natural fit with this more conversational style.
Probably the stickiest point in our internal debates about style was whether sentence case might be too casual for maintaining our authority as a government website. Our audience may be used to seeing title case on government websites and we certainly didn’t want to detract from our overall credibility.
However, our user testing indicated that there are other elements that users rely on to evaluate the trustworthiness of our site such as the .gov domain and our banner identifying us as an official government website.
While many government websites use title case–80% of the federal-level websites we looked at–there were some prominent redesigns in 2022 and 2023. Sites such as SSA.gov, VA.gov, Digital.gov, and GSA.gov have begun adopting sentence case.
These sites, like our own sites, incorporate the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS), which provides design patterns and components for federal government websites. While USWDS does not provide specific guidance on how to capitalize headings, their latest templates do use sentence case for page titles, headings, and buttons. Our assumption is that more of the government web content we link to from USAGov’s sites may be adopting sentence case in the coming years.
We also reached out to some other agencies for feedback on why they adopted sentence case and heard about benefits such as making their content easier to read, consistency with other guidelines, and that it was easier for content designers to apply consistently.
Evaluating our content
After weighing all the different factors from our research, many of our team members were leaning toward sentence case, but a crucial part of our decision was also evaluating our own content. We used the website crawler Screaming Frog to analyze the different headings used on our new sites.
Caption: Comparison of a USA.gov page title using title case (left) and sentence case (right) on a small screen. In some cases, moving to sentence case reduced the number of lines that titles and headings wrapped to for our mobile users.
Overall, both page titles and headings were trending longer on the new sites as we had worked to include more keywords in our content to optimize for search engines. Our analysis showed that almost 60% of page titles and 77% of our H2 level headings were longer than 30 characters, in many cases wrapping to at least three lines on small screen displays.
We took into consideration the wording used in these headings as well, with 65% of our H2 headings appearing to be full sentences. This made sentence case seem the most natural.
Embracing sentence case
After all of our research and reflection, we decided to switch all content on our new English beta website to sentence case before it launched to the public. We created some brief guidelines for our team of content designers, split up our nearly 400 pages, and systematically made the change over a few weeks.
We didn’t see any red flags with the new style during our six-month beta period or in the time since the beta sites became the new USA.gov and USAGov en Español in April 2023. Our web surveys show no change in the overall rating for the trustworthiness of the sites. The new style has been easy for our content designers to apply consistently and we’ve begun introducing sentence case to our other channels including social media, email outreach, and this blog.
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