Writing for the web

Written by Karin Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

Let’s start with an obvious statement: if you’re reading this article, you know how to read. The question is: how well? The scale between reading fluently and being completely illiterate is wide and fluctuating, and much more complicated than you might have thought. For example, did you know that 48% of the US adult population are classed as being low literacy readers? Figures in other advanced countries are fairly similar.

Traditionally, literacy is defined as being able to read and write on a level that enables you to communicate with other literate readers. If that’s the average, who qualifies as a lower literacy reader? Basically, anyone who can read but struggles with it. If you have trouble scanning text for information because you need to go through it word by word, or if you often find yourself re-reading long, unfamiliar words, you may well belong to the low literacy category. (Struggling with pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis doesn’t count, you’ll be pleased to hear.)

When writing for the web, you must take your website visitor’s ability read into consideration. As one lower-literacy researcher puts it, nearly 50% of US adults read at an eighth-grade level or below, whereas the vast majority of websites are written at a twelfth grade level or above. Obviously, this presents a problem – and how much you need to worry about it depends on the nature of your business and the product you’re trying to sell. If you’re selling business software to other businesses, or if you’re selling very expensive, scientific or intellectual products, chances are your customers are highly literate. On the other hand, if your product has a broader appeal you definitely want to keep those 48% in mind.

At this point, it’s probably worth taking a step back and making one thing extremely clear: lower literacy does not equal low intelligence! People struggle with reading for all sorts of reasons, and if you think that taking lower literacy users into account is a waste of time, you may well be the one with an IQ in the lower figures. Neglecting half the population is never clever!

The good news is that catering to lower literacy users doesn’t necessarily involve completely redoing your website. In fact, many of the recommendations are identical to general usability guidelines. In other words, if your site already qualifies as user-friendly, lower-literacy users shouldn’t find it overly problematic. If you’re unsure, here are five tips that will help, when writing for the web:

Tip 1: Make sure you place the important, valuable information at the top, and avoid starting a page with long, dense paragraphs of text. Lower-literacy users will probably avoid them like the plague, and they won’t appeal to anyone else either. Prioritise information and make your main points as clear and simple as possible.

Tip 2: Avoid unnecessary distractions. Flashing images, animations, moving text and pop-out menus are annoying at the best of times, but if you need to concentrate on reading, they’re a nightmare. Keep it nice and simple – it is not the same thing as boring and dated, and illustrations can still be very helpful.

Tip 3: Avoid long sentences and parenthetical text (don’t start talking about flowers, hippos, the general state of the galaxy and the latest episode of Stargate SG1, the latest change to the menu in your favourite restaurant or perhaps some other vaguely related thing that seems like a good idea at the time but might not be so clever after all now that you think about it) because some readers will struggle to remember the point your were trying to make! Using an active voice and a conversational style of writing can also be helpful, but again, you need to keep your target audience in mind.

Tip 4: Simplify navigation. If you have one navigation bar at the top, one on the left, one on the right and several additional text links throughout the content, it’s time to trim things down. Guide your visitors through the site, make it clear where you want them to go. For the textual content, try using headlines and sub-headlines in a bigger font – it’s an oldie, but it really does work.

Tip 5: Make sure that the page structure is consistent throughout the site. This should really be self-evident, but we still see a surprising number of sites that leave out vital elements on certain pages. If you use a top menu, all pages should have it. If you include a side navigation bar, don’t leave it out on certain pages. This is confusing at the best of times, and can create an even bigger struggle for low literacy readers.

These are the main points. If you suspect that a significant proportion of your visitors fall under the lower literacy category, you’d be wise to take a good look at your site. Try to meet the needs of all your potential customers, not just a percentage. To be crass, lower literacy does not equal empty wallet. Don’t scare your visitors away, but welcome them with open arms and clear and accessible information!