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People are inundated each day with new messages and advertising—much of it in a form that requires them to actively read and process what is being communicated to them. However, not everyone reads alike. There are different factors that determine how effective a written message will be: size and type of font used, how quickly a reader can digest what they are reading, or the variety of words used (whether the words are smaller and more easily recognized or longer and less widely used).
What we learned from the magazine industry
Before the Internet, designers focused primarily on print. They mastered the art of communicating a benefit or keeping the reader’s attention via the magazine layout. They wonderfully identified ad placement that gets maximum visibility for their advertisers. The magazine industry has an illustrious history of understanding how people read and digest what they are reading. The successful magazine print designers understood the science of how our brain works. When you apply these principles to your website copy, you can increase your conversions, communicate your brand message and drive users deeper into your website.
How We Read
The human eye is an amazing tool used to process the world around us. In fact, out of all our senses, 80% of the things we learn happen through our eyes. It is important, therefore, to keep your reader’s reading experience in mind when planning and implementing the design strategy for your website. Good design captures a reader’s attention while, at the same time, facilitating an easy reading experience that leads the reader to take action. That may seem like a tall order, but, by following the tips outlined below, it can be achieved.
Appeal to your reader’s rhythm
People read differently in various parts of the world. In the West, we are trained to read in a left to right fashion and have a subconscious tendency to look at all messages starting from the left. It is important to keep this in mind when planning your design, as a right-heavy or right-to-left design could through off their rhythm which could cause them to stop reading altogether.
Additionally, you want to help your reader’s rhythm along. This can be done with the font style you use. Text should typically be left-justified (meaning a jagged right edge). Individual letters should be evenly spaced, not cramped together. The clearest and most easily read fonts are typically those in the serif family, as serif fonts help to reduce regression. When a reader regresses, it means they are going back to reread something their eye has already passed over. Regressing changes how the brain processes the information it is receiving which usually lowers its overall comprehension.
Create fixation points
You want your message to flow evenly. People have a tendency to fixate, or take a tiny pause to allow the brain to interpret what the eyes are seeing, when they read. While the average fixation lasts only 200-250 milliseconds, it is important to keep the reader from fixating on the wrong things. Again, the ease of reading your message can decrease the processing time a reader needs on the basic text, and can get them to fixate instead on the key information you want to convey.
Example: The use of bolding, italics, or underlining can create these artificial fixation points and add importance to the text.
Adjust for eye span
When a reader pauses during a fixation (also known as a saccade), they can only see so many words to the left and the right of their stopping point (about 2 inches) before vision degrades, making text farther away more blurry. This area of readability is called an eye span, and it can range from person to person. Many highly-circulated newspapers and magazines are aware of eye span and implement it into their layout designs by using narrow columns of about five to eight words on each line. By doing this, they ensure that no matter where a reader fixates, they should be able to take in a majority of the text line and continue reading with little problem.
Take advantage of Thought Units
In order to process information, our brains automatically break messages down into smaller units of thought that are easier to digest than larger, more complex ideas. You can facilitate this by clustering the ideas in your message so that a reader will see them in a single eye span.
The proper use of spacing, bolding, italicizing, or underlining, or adding a second color can redirect the eye, making it fixate where you want and process the entirety of the message you are trying to communicate. Using proper grammatical placement—such as commas, colons, and em-dashes—can help to separate large pieces of text.
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Stick with the familiar
The more familiar your reader is with the content they see, they easier they can comprehend your message. Human brains have learned to process words because of how often they are repeated—it no longer needs to sound out each word, but has learned just by looking what each word is.
Do not change a word’s appearance unnecessarily by using ALL CAPS or by placing s p a c i n g between letters. Stick to traditional methods of writing, capitalizing where necessary and using proper grammar and punctuation.
Break it down
On average, an adult eye travels 110 miles per year (or 1,600 feet per day). Eye fatigue can slow a reader’s recognition rate (how fast they understand the words they are seeing) and make their reading experience more difficult.
A big way you can keep your readers from becoming fatigued by keeping the content of your message at a reasonable size—typically between 9 and 12 point font for the average adult, though text may need to be larger if your message is targeted toward younger or older readers. Also, avoid bright or soft colors. Stick to contrasting colors that are easy to read, typically this means black words on a white background.
Breaking up your message into smaller, more digestible paragraphs is always better than having one very long paragraph. Oftentimes, a reader will see a large paragraph and begin to skim, or they will skip it entirely. Keep whitespace between each of your paragraphs to give the eye a brief rest. This will also help the reader keep their place and avoid regression. A good rule of thumb is to keep paragraphs no longer than six lines in length.
Prepare for Skimmers
Despite your best efforts in creating reader-friendly design, people will still skim the information presented to them. One Slate article states the problem very well: Out of anyone who visits your page, 38% will bounce (meaning, they spend no time engaging with the page at all). Of the 62% that do not bounce, 5% will not scroll down the page. Those that do not bounce and scroll down the page will begin to lose interest the longer the author writes because it is hard to keep a reader focused. According to studies they did, most readers will only read about 50% of the available content.
A good design should accept and prepare for this. Structure your content so that you enable them to still get the key points of your message, despite their skimming of the material. Here are some ways to do that:
- Keep important info at the beginning of or the end of your paragraphs. When people skim they tend to skip the middle
- Use subheadings to catch the reader’s eye and impart the gist of your core message.
- Since some people won’t even scroll down on the page, put your most important information “above the fold,” so to speak.
- Employ bullet points to break up information
- Use bold for key points to attract the eye and break up text
Keep Your Site Mobile
It is also important to keep in mind that many of your website visitors may be coming to your site via a mobile device. In 2014, for the first time ever, the number of global users of mobile devices surpassed global users of desktop computers (mobile devices including smartphones, tablets, and laptops).
Smartphones and tablets (and even some laptops) are not able to display information exactly like a desktop would. Smaller screen size places a large number of constraints on website design, and can affect the overall message you are trying to communicate. It is vital, therefore, to conduct testing to ensure that your website is optimized for mobile viewing as well as for desktops.
A good design that incorporates all of the above eight points will not only have messages that appeal to their readers, but will see increased reading comprehension and greater follow-through from readers to take action.
If you follow these tips and take our Free SEO Audit, you’ll already be ahead of the game.