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:

Guidelines for website credibility

Handy copypasta guidelines from the wiki page on the Stanford Web Credibility Project:

Guideline Additional Comments
1. Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site. You can build web site credibility by providing third-party support (citations, references, source material) for information you present, especially if you link to this evidence. Even if people don’t follow these links, you’ve shown confidence in your material.
2. Show that there’s a real organization behind your site. Showing that your web site is for a legitimate organization will boost the site’s credibility. The easiest way to do this is by listing a physical address. Other features can also help, such as posting a photo of your offices or listing a membership with the chamber of commerce.
3. Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you provide. Do you have experts on your team? Are your contributors or service providers authorities? Be sure to give their credentials. Are you affiliated with a respected organization? Make that clear. Conversely, don’t link to outside sites that are not credible. Your site becomes less credible by association.
4. Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site. The first part of this guideline is to show there are real people behind the site and in the organization. Next, find a way to convey their trustworthiness through images or text. For example, some sites post employee bios that tell about family or hobbies.
5. Make it easy to contact you. A simple way to boost your site’s credibility is by making your contact information clear: phone number, physical address, and email address.
6. Design your site so it looks professional (or is appropriate for your purpose). We find that people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like The visual design should match the site’s purpose.
7. Make your site easy to use—and useful. We’re squeezing two guidelines into one here. Our research shows that sites win credibility points by being both easy to use and useful. Some site operators forget about users when they cater to their own company’s ego or try to show the dazzling things they can do with web technology.
8. Update your site’s content often (at least show it’s been reviewed recently). People assign more credibility to sites that show they have been recently updated or reviewed.
9. Use restraint with any promotional content (e.g., ads, offers). If possible, avoid having ads on your site. If you must have ads, clearly distinguish the sponsored content from your own. Avoid pop-up ads, unless you don’t mind annoying users and losing credibility. As for writing style, try to be clear, direct, and sincere.
10. Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem. Typographical errors and broken links hurt a site’s credibility more than most people imagine. It’s also important to keep your site up and running.


Bad mobile UX will make people tired (and sore)

As a web designer, if you’ve ever felt your work is too virtual, too intangible, then find some solace in designing for mobile environments. Thinking about how users position themselevs while using a touch device, we grasp how our UX decisions can have physical, real world impact:

Every touch, every swipe, every pinch, and every zoom requires quite a bit of physical motion. Your hand moves while the rest of the arm is working to stabilize the wrist and you are holding the device steady with the other hand. That is a lot of physical exertion compared to using a typical mouse, where your hand moves less, your wrist is probably resting on a wrist pad, and your arm sits comfortably on a chair arm. Your other hand is not even needed. So, you can start to see how much more effort using a mobile device can be.

Read The Cost of a Touch for a bit of theory on how to make life – real, physiological life – easier for the guy at the other end of your project.

Tl;dr –

  • Remember the user’s prior selections
  • Make it easy to skip ahead
  • Take advantage of device sensors (light, movement, sound, etc.) to understand context
  • “Looks cool!” should never interfere with “Works well!”

Designing good UX for old people


“We’ll use your site, but first we have to trust you.”

UX Mag offers quick tips on how to design appropriate web user experience for the growing Baby Boomer market.

Key takeaways:

  • Educate your Boomer user before asking them to dive in.
  • Be reassuring – remind them how secure your site is, offer a heads up of what sort of information they’ll be expected to give – be nice, hold their hand.
  • Clear, simple, fairly static design is best – give lots of margin for shaky-handed, tired-eyed error.
  • Big text

When bad design happens to good content

A quick, short read on good practise for styling text:

And something more recent from Smashing that uses more big words:

How many test users in a usability study?

Fresh in from our favourite usability guy:

Tl;dr – 5 is the optimal. As you add more users, you spend more time observing same findings per new insight gained. If you just want stats, test at least 20 so the maths look good. For card sorting, test 15 or more. When eyetracking, test 39 to account for individual variations.