20 Nov 2008

Don’t be lazy! Make content easy to read

Web readers are impatient, skeptical and lazy: or so we as communicators are always told. But after this morning's Content Usability session at the User Experience seminar in Amsterdam I am beginning to think it is web producers, not readers, who are lazy.

Lecturer John Morkes walked participants through a study he and web usability guru Jakob Nielsen conducted in the States some years ago. Essentially they produced four versions of a website. In addition to the original highly promotional approach, one was was optimized to be easily scanned, the second was brutally concise (less than 50 percent of the original), the third was very objective (no opinion whatsoever) and the last was a mix of the three.

It turned out that using any of the three new versions (easily scanned, concise and objective) improved usability and overall reader satisfaction - cutting the word length alone boosted satisfaction by 58 percent - but it was the combination of the three that was staggering. Morkes and Nielsen reported a 124 percent improvement in usability through relatively simple changes to the way content was written.

The explanation: web reading is hard, 10 percent harder at least than printed material, and requires more thinking, known as cognitive load. Making it easier for people to process information is therefore key. Concise content means less to process. Scannable content helps people find the text they should focus on. And objective texts eliminate all the subjective questions and arguments that distract readers from what you want them to know.

So when you develop content, think short, accurate and to the point.


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