Two Quick Rules for Readability

I’ve been frequenting a website recently for purposes of obtaining a particular certification.  The site (which will remain nameless) is broken up into learning modules, each with foundational information a user must read in order to complete a series of quizzes and move on through the certification process.  I have found, sadly, that the longer I engage with this site, the worse I am doing on the quizzes.  Now, I could chalk this up to my becoming increasingly dumber as the hours necessary to go through each module sluggishly go by, or I could look for a scapegoat for my poor performance.  I choose the latter.  My scapegoat, then, entrenched as I am in all things usability, is the site’s absolutely user-unfriendly design and its mind-numbing effects on me, the user.

I was reading this article on Mashable.com, and I think it is so on point with its outline of how to make your Website usable.  The offending site I mentioned above is failing on all points, especially when it comes to readability.  Two salient and simple suggestions for improving readability are:

  1. Keep Content as Concise as Possible
  2. Help Readers Scan Your Webpages Quickly

The article’s author, Jacob Gube, states that content should be “easy and pleasant to read, easy to understand, and skimmable.”  The pages on the site I’ve been visiting include extremely long lines of text, filled to the brim with information (including much technical jargon), and tons of embedded links within the text.  I feel constantly disrupted and distracted, having to click on links that navigate away from the main content in order to give me yet more huge pieces of information. Ugh.

Tech blogger Philip Webb stresses the importance of what he calls “chunking up” content for greater usability.  “That’s technical talk,” he says, “for make your page more scan-friendly.  Large blocks of dense text intimidate the reader and causes ‘information overload.’”  With web content, conciseness is a virtue—especially within instructional websites.  Dale’s Cone of Experience, which is an instructional-design model and not the name of a totally awesome PBS Kids science series, shows that people tend to retain only 10% of the information they read.   And studies show that in the hyperlinked world of online reading, attending to wordy text and remembering its content is even more limited.

Here’s where a cool tool can help.  The Readability Test Tool analyzes the readability of your website’s text—whether that be an entire page or a specified section—using several key readability indicators, the most popular of which are probably the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level tests.  Just paste in your URL or directly input the text you’d like to analyze, and the RTT will tell you how it scores.

http://www.read-able.com/
http://www.read-able.com/

So, for instance, I cut and pasted the text of this very blog post, and it returned a reading level of about the 11th-grade, which is pretty good, considering much of IU’s blog readership consists of young adults—undergraduates and graduate students in their late teens and early twenties.  However, that website that has me in a shame spiral due to my lackluster quiz scores? It has a grade level of about 17, which means more easily understood by 22 to 23 year olds.  A recent report by Nielsen Norman Group stresses the importance of writing web content that is quick to scan and includes easily digestible chunks of information: “If your site targets a broad audience, aim to write at a 6th-grade reading level (or lower). Writing at this level will help audiences of all ages—young and old—quickly understand your content.”

When you aim, especially, to have your audience engage with your site at length, as with the site I’ve been visiting regularly for certification purposes, you need to be economical with words—cutting clutter, enhancing white space, and emphasizing ease of use.  Keep these two simple rules in mind: Be concise and support scanning.

References

Gube, J. (2011). 7 best practices for improving your website’s usability. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/09/12/website-usability-tips/

Nielsen, J. (2013). Teenage usability: designing teen-targeted websites. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-of-websites-for-teenagers/

Webb, P. (2013). Improve the readability of your web page. Webcredible. Retrieved from http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-usability/web-page-readability.shtml

Author- Emily Stueven

Graduate Assistant in the Digital User Experience Department, IUB Libraries.