How users read on the web

How Users Read on the Web is an article from 1997 on writing style, formatting and language – and research on what worked best for websites. It’s old, but I’d still put stock in it, just from how tired I still get after reading hyped, flashy, marketing copy.

Here are some highlights:

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.

[W]e found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links.

Users detested “marketese”; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims (“hottest ever”) that currently is prevalent on the Web. Web users are busy: they want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.

Check out the table with test results for how changing writing style improved usability. Their theory of why it happened hit home for me:

Our conjecture to explain this finding is that promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts “Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,” their first reaction is no, it’s notand this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.

Usability and Accessibility

I’ve been doing a bit of writing lately, trying to introduce user experience concepts to people who don’t deal with this stuff day to day. Thought I’d share a bit. 🙂

don norman's three teapots

Don Norman’s three teapots, from a story on usability and design of everyday objects.

Usability describes how easy a system is for its audience to use and learn. This isn’t restricted to just websites and software – you can consider the usability of everyday objects too, like teapotstelephones and ticket machines – anything someone can interact with towards a specific goal.

On the web, usability is important because it enables users to do what they came for. If users can’t get what they want, they either leave or complain – two things that can end up costing you money.

The terms ‘usability’ and ‘user experience’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but don’t mean the same thing. A site can be usable – ie. easy and functional – but not a delightful experience at all. User experience is primarily concerned with feelings, and while usability is just one aspect, it can have a huge influence over what a person gets out of using a system.

You’ll sometimes hear usability and accessibility discussed together. They’re two different concepts, focusing on different aspects of websites, but they ultimately share the same purpose – to allow any user to get what they came for.

Accessibility refers to how available something is to a wider audience, regardless of location, experience, physical and mental condition, or the type of technology used. It is considered a matter of human rights – much like how anti-discrimination laws require parking spots and wheelchair ramps in the offline world, there are laws for online spaces too.

So you’ll often hear about accessibility in the context of how people with disabilities can get the information they need, but disabilities aren’t limited to physical, learning or neurological conditions – they also include technological ‘disabilities’ like sub-optimal hardware, and slow, unreliable or expensive internet connections. Web accessibility aims to include everyone who uses the internet to perform tasks or acquire information.

Web accessibility is guided by WCAG, a set of internationally recognised guidelines on how to offer text, websites, images, video, audio, documents (eg. PDFs, Word docs), forms and interactive content in the most usable way for as many people as possible.

“The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

I did some reading at: