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Is your text readable?

According to the National Adult Literacy Study, the average adult in the United States reads at a 7th grade level. This study, if it is to be believed, indicates that that when texts are beyond the reading ability of the reader, they give up.

Are we writing text for our websites that is too complicated for our users?

Take a look at this paragraph from a previous post:

Radio buttons, by their very nature, have only one option selected at a time. For the sake of consistency, it is important to have a default option when presenting the user with radio buttons. The current four candidates for U.S. president all have contribution pages on their websites that let users choose a contribution amount through radio buttons, but none of them have a default option for the contribution amount.

That passage was, apparently, written at a 12th grade reading level. Here is the same paragraph, re-written to be at an 8th grade reading level:

Radio buttons should have just one option selected at a time. That’s what makes them radio buttons. To be consistent, radio buttons should have a default option. The current four candidates for president all have contribution pages on their websites. These pages let users choose how much to contribution through radio buttons. None of them have a default option for the contribution amount.

Though the first version flows better and is more precise and informative, it is nevertheless much more complicated than the second version.

To make matters more complicated, there is more to readability than dumping one’s text into a reading level calculator. The formulas for determining reading level just count syllables, words, and paragraphs, and they may not even count syllables that well. They say nothing about how well organized a text is, whether the words used are the right words, or even if the text makes any sense.

Then, consider your audience. Users tolerate higher reading levels if they are more interested in a subject or if they are domain experts. A landing page selling consumer products are going to have a different audience than a landing page for a white paper. On the other hand, users may want you to sound like an expert–they may want to see big words or a professional tone. Users may have cognitive disabilities or may be inexperienced at reading.

So, are we writing text for our websites that is too complicated for our users? The only way to find out is testing. A good starting point is to employ best practices for writing for the web. Ultimately, though, your text is just like any other element of the design. Don’t simply test images or page layout or headlines. Test the text on your pages. Try out multiple versions until you find the most effective way of presenting your information for your users.

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