5 Ways to Improve Your Website’s Readability
By Paul Krantz

In this excellent (and anonymous) blog posting, the writer offers 10 tips for creating effective web copy. The advice is spot-on, though you may have already heard much of it. For instance, the writer notes that marketing copy for the web should stick to the facts and avoid the fluff and squishy claims that work so well in brochures and other print marketing materials.

But there was one tip that really intrigued me: Write for a low literacy audience. Citing a Pfizer study, the author asserts that “43% of web users are ‘low literacy’ users who cannot understand a page written above a Grade 6 level.” I found this claim on several web sites, but was unable to find the original source, so you can take it with a grain of salt. Even so, this strikes me as a sound practice.

I’ve always been a proponent of writing below the reading level of your audience. I can read and (eventually) understand most college-level textbooks. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy curling up with a scholarly passage. Frankly, I’m much happier reading the back of a cereal box.

But 6th grade? That seems like a low bar for the typical website visitor. And although the claim may be true, I can think of several explanations beyond poor reading skills.

Here are five web page mistakes that turn good readers into grammar-school dropouts:

1. Text columns that are too wide or too narrow. For maximum reading ease, text columns should be no wider than 40 characters, nor less than 20 characters. It’s OK to violate these rules for short bursts of copy, but I don’t imitate websites that run text the full width of the screen.

2. Reversed type. Light-colored text on a dark background is hard to read, regardless of length. Stick to the standard black type on a white background.

3. Long passages in italics. The thin strokes and sharp curves of italic fonts make them difficult to render onscreen. Save italics for emphasizing a word or two in your text.

4. No subheads. Web readers don’t like to work. How often have you bailed on a web page that’s one long block of text? Meaningful signposts in the form of subheads, bold lead-ins and bulleted lists make it simple for readers to scan your page and hone in on the information that’s most important to them.

5.  Oddball fonts and sizes. Most readability experts recommend using a standard sans serif type (like Arial) for body copy. I agree. But you also should avoid small fonts. Nobody enjoys reading “the fine print” in any context. And if you do choose a small font for, say, a caption, you can enhance readability by using a narrow column width.
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