Monday, July 12, 2010

How readable is your content?


Content readability is a basic writing fundamental that’s often overlooked when writers or researchers evaluate online content. I’m not sure why. It seems to have gotten a bit lost in all the complexities of content strategy and design. But your content isn’t worth spit if your audience can’t read it! Here’s a quick primer to help you understand the basics of readable online content.

What is readable content?

Content readability describes how easy or difficult it is to read and understand information. Readable content is familiar and invisible. You read it and don’t notice the words at all. You just end up with a strong sense of the message and the personality or brand behind the message. You don’t have to think, interpret, or decipher. You just sort of absorb the information, quickly and easily.

Why bother?

In case you need a few reasons beyond, “It’s the right thing to do”, check these out:
  • The average North American adult reads at a grade 8 level.
  • Consumers will not read web content that is difficult for them to understand.
  • There are an increasing number of regulations and laws to ensure that public-facing legal, medical, and government information is easy to read.
  • It’s becoming competitively critical to speak clearly and directly to your customers. If you snooze on this one, you’ll lose.

How do you know if your content is readable?

Integrate good content practices into your writing and editing cycles, and test your assumptions.

1.  Check your writing mechanics

There are some basic rules of readable content. Ask yourself these questions as you conduct your first round of editing:
  • Do you mostly use an active voice? Use passive voice only when it serves a particular purpose.
  • Do you use first and second person point-of-view whenever possible?
  • Do you use consistent terminology? Don’t vary terms for variety sakes.
  • Are your sentences short? Say, no more than twenty words per sentence?
  • Are your paragraphs short? About 3 or 4 sentences per paragraph, max?
  • Do you use serial commas?
  • Do you use mostly simple sentence structures?
  • Do you follow conventional rules of grammar (unless you have good reason not to)? 
2.  Check your information design

Since you’re editing for mechanics anyway, check this stuff too:

  • Do you use lots of headings? Preferably short, descriptive ones.
  • Are you presenting information in a way that makes it easier to scan? Maybe a bullet list, or a table, or an illustration, or a graph? Or something else. Just don’t automatically default to narrative text because you have no imagination.
  • Is your page (or paragraph, or sentence) loaded with too much information?
  • Does your information have a logical and natural flow that your audience will understand?
  • Is there enough white space around and between the text?
  • Is your type big enough so people don’t have to squint to read it? Typically, 10 pt for a general audience or 12 pt if your audience is over 45 or under 16 years old.
  • Is your typeface legible? Sans serif fonts usually work well for online body text. 
3.  Use readability formulas

Readability formulas have their limitations, but they’re an effective way to identify possible problems early in the content creation cycle. They’re also a great way to show “before and after” improvement statistics. Here are two of the most common and easy-to-use readability formulas. You can set up Microsoft Word to run these formulas when you run your spelling check:

  • Flesch Reading Ease: This formula takes into account the number of words in each sentence, and the number of syllables in each word. It gives you a score from 0-100, where 100 is extremely simple and 0 is extremely complex. The Plain Language Institute suggests that a score of 80 or higher is considered to be plain language. In web writing for a general consumer audience, we aim for 60 or above. This article scores 61.0 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale.
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: This formula takes Flesch Reading Ease results and translates them into North American school grade level equivalents. Remember that the average North American reads at a grade 8 level? That’s where your web writing should be, unless you have clear research about your audience that says otherwise. This article is written at a grade 7.6 level. 
4.  Most importantly, test with your audience!

Seriously, do not skip this step. You’ll be amazed at how effective this is in letting you know what’s really going on with your content. Find 6 or more people within your customer demographic to read through your web content. Ask them to find key information and then pay attention to how long it takes them and what they look at and read as they find their way to the target content. Then, ask them just a few questions to gauge their understanding of key concepts and get a feel for how they experienced the content. Nothing is better than putting real content and real customers together, and seeing what happens!


Now you know how to make your content readable, learn how to make your content useful!

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