Users move fast. To capture their attention, we need to stand out from our competitors by presenting useful information clearly and quickly. Readability is a good way to accomplish this.
What is readability?
Readability is a measurement of how easily users can glean information from text. Simplicity, brevity and page layout (or structure) are all part of readability.
Long, complex or disorganized pages scare users away — even highly educated users.
- Most users leave any given web page within 10 seconds.
- Only about 25% of the text on a page is read.
- Users don’t read text unless it’s clear, simple and easy to understand.
- An 8th grade reading level is best for broad audiences, like patients.
- A 12th grade reading level is best for specialized audiences, like doctors.
Why is readability important?
Readability has several benefits:
- It makes a page as easy to read and understand as possible for a target audience.
- It helps a page be as effective as possible at getting a user to take a certain action.
- It helps optimize a page so that it can be found in search by as many users as possible.
Use plain language
Plain language means using words most people know in the same way they would. This means shorter words, shorter sentences and a conversational tone.
How to use plain language:
Use plainspoken words
- Shorter words = easier to read = faster to read = better.
- Avoid jargon unless the vast majority of readers understand it (shared vocabulary).
- Avoid made-up words, slang, idioms and brands outside our own.
Use short sentences
- Shorter sentences = easier to parse = faster to understand information = better.
- Avoid longer, compound sentences with many clauses and conjunctions.
Write like you talk
- Use a reading level below the reader’s formal education level (8th grade for broad audiences, like patients; 12th grade for specialized audiences, like doctors).
- Use a conversational tone to make the copy natural, easy-to-digest and inviting.
- Use contractions when they sound natural (like “we’re” and “don’t”).
- Use active voice for clarity (as in “We do this” not “This is done by us”) .
- Use present tense for simplicity and impact (as in “We partner with you” not “We will partner with you”).
- Use words that reduce complexity but keep the same message (as in “reduce” not “diminish”).
Plain language benefits
- Easily understood by everybody, including experts, international readers and English as a second language (ESL) readers.
- Even the most educated readers prefer text be no higher than a 12th grade level.
- Users see the organization as smarter, more transparent and more credible.
- Users search in plain language, so they more often find pages with plain language.
Structure pages clearly
Users wants to be able to get the gist of a message efficiently. Clear page structure helps users determine the purpose of a page and find critical info faster. Users are more likely to take a desired action (like schedule an appointment) when they can find what they need.
How to structure pages clearly:
- Focus a page on an easily identifiable purpose.
- Break content into useful, descriptive headings. (Example)
- Limit a page’s total length to avoid too much scrolling; longer pages can work but they’re hard to make as effective. If users scroll for more than a few seconds without finding what they’re looking for, they’ll leave.
- Avoid long sections of text (“walls” of text). If you’ve hit three straight paragraphs longer than a couple sentences each, you’ve probably gone too far.
- Use lists and bullet points to make the page more scannable.
- To highlight notable info, consider using visual components (like Quick Facts or Topic Rows).
Learn More About Readability
Writing easy-to-read content is hard. It’s really hard when tasked to write about advanced topics in healthcare and healthcare education. If you’d like to develop your skills in web content writing, these resources can help:
- Plainlanguage.gov Guidelines
- Nielsen Norman Group: Legibility, Readability, and Comprehension
- Nielsen Norman Group: How Users Read on the Web
- Nielsen Norman Group: How Little Do Users Read?