Recently, I was reviewing a website and came across a page geared toward international students. Reading the copy, I realized English would not be the first language for the target audience. Immediately, I felt my brain shift into a different gear.
Beyond assessing the value of the content, I began closely scrutinizing diction and syntax. How many syllables in this word? How many clauses in this sentence? Would the density and complexity of this copy impede someone for whom English is a second language from understanding its meaning?
These concerns are not unique to content focused on an international student audience. What if your institution has programs catering to immigrant populations or struggling high school students? Or what if someone with a reading disability visits your website? A more familiar scenario might be translating the hard science behind a professor’s accomplishment into layperson’s terms for a news story or externally-facing program page.
One of the first rules of communication is to put your audience first. What information do they need? In what format do they need it? How are they searching for it? Where are they coming from? Where will they go next? And so on. But it’s stunning how easy it can be to overlook the needs of our audience at the most fundamental level — the language we use.
Plain Language Saves the Day
It is in our best interest to create content that does not get in its own way with unnecessary complexity. “Too many sites are just too damn hard to understand for someone trying to find information, make an informed decision or complete a transaction (you know, the things that ultimately lead to that elusive ROI?),” information architect Daniel Eizans wrote back in 2010.
This sounds like a job for plain language. Using plain language helps ensure the meaning of your content is understood by your audience. Bryan Garner, author of “Legal Writing in Plain English,” defines plain language as “the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea.” The University of Sydney’s Professor Robert Eagleson elaborates:
It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language.
Plain language is information that is focused on readers. When you write in plain language, you create information that works well for the people who use it, whether online or in print.”
By creating content with readability in mind and employing various methods to assess how readable it is, we will be doing a service to both ourselves and our audience.
The Interface of Language
“When conducting usability tests, we stereotypically gauge the effectiveness of our websites by assessing information architecture, design and layout, placement of calls to action, and other such considerations. But, while often overlooked in usability tests, content plays a huge role in website usability.”
Language has its own interface to consider. In her excellent A List Apart article “Testing Content,” Angela Colter explains the process of decoding and comprehension that comprise the act of reading. There’s a lot going on when you are reading, and there are a lot of factors that can affect whether the act of reading actually results in comprehension. We can’t assume that words on a page will implicitly be understood.
Eizans says that the simplest approach to ensure readability is to err on the side of brevity. He also notes that adhering to some of the basic principles of web writing, like using bulleted lists and short paragraphs, can also help aid in comprehension. The Center for Plain Language includes these and many more tips in its plain language checklist.
But how can we know for sure that our content is readable? In a presentation, content strategist Leen Jones and Kevin O’Connor of UserInsight detailed an approach to content usability testing. “Testing content helps you choose the right content direction,” they note.
In testing content, they propose asking three key questions:
- Can users find and read the content they need?
- Can they understand the content?
- Can they act on the content?
The best-placed call-to-action will still fail if the supporting content is difficult to comprehend.
Colter also details a usability testing approach to gauging content readability. Much like we ask users to complete site tasks in a usability test, Colter recommends asking users to complete tasks where successful completion is incumbent upon comprehending a selection of content.
For us in higher ed, a relevant scenario might be a student needing to complete a different graduation form depending on whether they have a single major, a double major, or a major and a minor.
There are several formulas that can quickly help you ascertain the readability of your content, often by determining the grade level required to understand the content. These include:
- The Gunning Fox Index looks at average sentence length, plus percentage of hard words, multiplied by .4. The result is the reading grade level of the content; eighth grade is the generally recommended target. This tool will calculate the Gunning Fog Index of a given block of text.
- The Fleisch Reading Ease is an algorithm that results in a score on a 100-point scale. A result between 60-70 is considered good.
- The Fleisch-Kincaid Grade Level is an algorithm that generates the grade level required to understand the content.
If you want to save time, read-able.com will calculate the Gunning Fog score, Fleish-Kincaid grade level, and four other readability formulas for a given URL or text selection. Google will also give you its assessment of your website’s reading level. Just substitute your school’s URL in this string:
However, as Colter warns, readability formulas don’t evaluate the content of the words on the page, nor their layout, organization, or meaning. Gez Lemon of Juicy Studio provides a good explanation of the relative value of readability formulas, calling their results a “prediction” of readability, at best.
“Being mathematically based, readability tests are unable to determine the likelihood that the document is comprehensible, interesting, or enjoyable,” he writes. “Layout and design are also important factors to the readability of a document that cannot be determined using readability tests.”
To more effectively gauge readability, Colter recommends something called a Cloze test, in which you remove approximately every fifth word from a section of test and ask users to fill in the blanks. If the content is well constructed, the reader should be able to guess the missing words correctly and ascertain the meaning of the text.
As Colter notes, this is not a typical usability testing technique — in fact, it is borrowed from English as a second language instruction. A score of 60 percent or more indicates the text is suitable for the target audience.
It’s the Law (Sort Of)
How can we make the case for plain language and readable websites? Well, look no further than our brother in bureaucratic arms: the federal government. In October 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, requiring federal agencies to create “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” In addition, there are three executive orders addressing the need for plain language in governmental regulations. The Center for Plain Language details these and other laws with implications for plain language.
Plainlanguage.gov is a helpful, government-authored resource on creating plain language communications, both online and offline. Specific to the web, the resource provides helpful information on planning a plain language website, addressing content structure, web writing, and usability.
Readability is also addressed in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 under Principle 3, Understandable: “Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.”
Guideline 3.1 implores web authors to make text content readable and understandable, which includes providing clarifying supplemental content “when text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles.” (WCAG includes various recommended techniques for meeting this guideline.)
As stated in the accompanying explanation of the reading level component of this guideline:
Difficult or complex text may be appropriate for most members of the intended audience (that is, most of the people for whom the content has been created). But there are people with disabilities, including reading disabilities, even among highly educated users with specialized knowledge of the subject matter.
While there are many ways to gauge the readability of our content, the ultimate goal remains constant: ensure that our content is meaningful and helpful to our audience. It is by exhibiting this level of empathy that we can not only build trust and rapport with users, but we can ensure that our communication goals are met.
How do you ensure that your web content is readable? Where else on our websites should we closely consider readability?