Readability: How to Write Content That Everyone Can Read

You may think you write great copy, but that goes nowhere if it’s too complex for some readers to comprehend. People read differently online and skim more than focusing on the details. In fact, it takes a little less than five seconds for most people to scan your site and decide if the content on your site is worth their time. If it isn’t, they leave. For users with cognitive and learning disabilities, however, readability is a bigger issue. They may not have the same ability to skim and scan content quickly and their reading ability is affected by more than just the complexity of the text.  So what goes into the readability of a text and how do we create content that is easy for everyone to consume?

Readability Scores

Readability scores are measurements of how your content may be understood by your intended audience. There are many different scoring systems out there, like the Flesch-Kincaid score and the Gunning-Fog score, that calculate readability based on the level of education a person needs to be at to be able to read and comprehend a piece of content easily. Based on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, if your text is meant to be read by the general public, you should aim for a score of around grade level 8, or for ages 13-14. 

These scores are affected by the following factors: 

1. Sentence length

Finding the right sentence length for your target audience is an art form of its own. Short sentences can make the content feel abrupt and choppy. Long sentences can seem heavy and make it hard to read. Depending on what you are writing about, your industry, and your intended audience, you should always keep sentence length at the forefront of your content writing considerations.

2. Paragraph length

Keeping paragraphs short and concise can help readability immensely. Walls of text are unappealing to readers and can be difficult for people with ADHD to focus on. Try to keep paragraphs within 3-4 sentences and keep key points to one paragraph. Where possible, add headings to paragraphs.

3. Vocabulary & voice

The appropriate use of grammar, punctuation, and localization will help keep your site’s content consistent and higher quality. Depending on your target audience and their estimated level of language comprehension, you’ll need to ensure that you use words that are common in the area in context, use relatively simple words rather than lengthy, complex words, and keep the language consistent. However, knowing what words to use and how to use them is a balancing act -- if you write too simply, your content might seem uninformed, boring and patronizing. Also, remember to use an active voice more often than a passive voice to keep ideas clear and concise. There is an exception for content in industries and areas such as research, where the use of slang, jargon, acronyms, and a passive are widely used and known amongst the target audience. Technical industries may also employ the use of complex industry terms as it is a part of their identity. 

4. Scanability

Scanability is the mode in which people consume content online. It makes up for the fact that people do not read web content in-depth due to factors like smaller screen sizes and shortened attention spans. Scanable sites allow people to glean information in as little time as possible and as little effort as possible. Implementing elements like headings, bulleted lists, emphasis in the form of bold and italics, links, and more can help improve your site’s scanability.

Visual Display

How the content is displayed visually on the page can affect its readability. So take into consideration the visual elements of the text such as text color, font, spacing, and imagery as listed below:

1. Color

Check the color contrast of your text and imagery against the background of your page to ensure maximum visibility for all, including those that are colorblind or have low vision. As a general rule, you will need to have your colors comply to the WCAG 2.0 level AA guidelines for contrast ratios, which requires the visual presentation of text and images of text to have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, except for large text, which should have a minimum contrast ratio of 3:1.

2. Font

Some fonts are just plain easier to read than others and using the right font can make a world of difference to users with learning disabilities like dyslexia. Avoid ornate or overly elaborate fonts that have irregular shapes and strokes. Using sans serif fonts without the little ‘ticks and tails’ also improves readability because these little decorative strokes on the font can be distracting and cause the shape of the letter to distort on the screen. Sticking to simple designs like Arial, Calibri, and Helvetica is a safe bet. While they maybe some of the more boring fonts out there, they are also cleaner, easier for people with learning disabilities to process. Remember to also use the appropriate font size, weight, and line spacing for optimum visibility and to break up headings from body text. 

3. Case and capitalizations

Try to avoid using uppercase in your text. Bold your text instead if you mean to highlight certain words. Uppercase does not only appear aggressive in content, it is also visually taxing to process, but it is also more difficult for readers that are new to the Latin alphabet to comprehend.

4. Avoid effects

Animation and word art is so 90s, so if not for the sake of not looking tacky, you shouldn’t be applying any special effects to your text as they can break attention and potentially cause motion-triggered reactions like seizures. 

5. Reading path

Studies using heatmaps reveal that the reading path of users follow an F-pattern, where they begin reading on the top left side of the page. Users usually look for visual cues in the content to indicate the flow of information and mostly scan from left to right to the end of the page. So items on the left side of the page take up most of their attention, and visual cues like headings follow. However, only the first few words of a sentence are processed before their attention falters. 

When creating content, design the flow of information to follow the F-pattern, presenting important items at the beginning of the content and be sure to have visual cues to keep attention on the text.

6. Headings

Since people skim the surface of the text rather than diving, having content that is easy to scan and glean the gist of the content is the best way to grab attention. Use headers and subheaders to convey as much information as possible in one compact sentence, and keep content paragraphs shorter, presenting only the necessary information in a top-down fashion.

Build content following a sequential order to help users navigate the information effectively. As mentioned before, write your content in a top-down manner, with all the information at the top and supplemental information following it. Use headings to break up content into different, digestible sections. This helps convey to the reader how the information is organized and how sections of the text relate or separate from one another. By labeling your headings appropriately, you are also making your content accessible to assistive technology like screen readers, as well as improving your on-page SEO.

Overall, readability improves the user experience for everyone regardless of reading ability. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of your target audience reading and engaging with the content. 

Making readable content will therefore not only help your audience comprehend the content on your site easily but also improves their investment into your words and engagement with your site.