Focus on legibility over fancy technology or marketing copy

Paul Boag

People often spend too much time on cutting edge technology or ‘clever’ marketing campaigns, when basic things like legibility are not in place.

Most web projects are commissioned by one of two types of people — technologists or marketers. In most organisations the web sits under either the CTO or the CMO.

When confronted with a poorly performing website, each will respond in a different way.

The CTO will look for a technical solution. They will pour thousands into the implementation of a new content management, or customer relationship management system.

On the other hand, the CMO will hire an ad agency who will launch a huge ‘creative’ campaign to draw users to the site and then persuade them to act.

Neither of these approaches are wrong if the basics are in place. Unfortunately, they often are not. As the saying goes “we should not run before we can walk”.

Take for example legibility. I often find myself talking to clients who are rolling out a ‘personalisation system’ or a ‘Facebook campaign’ when it is still painfully difficult to read what is written on their website.

Why legibility matters

Don’t get me wrong. Technology, aesthetics, marketing; these things matter. But underpinning all of that has to be solid usability. A significant part of that usability is the ability to easily read and process the written information on a page.

Text still dominates the web and will continue to do so. It is easier to create than imagery and video. The written word is the bedrock of how we communicate as a species over distances or through time.

But reading online is not easy. Looking at a screen is to have a light shined into your eyes. Our blink rate drops and our eyes dry out. Pixelation on non retina devices makes things worse, not to mention the small screen sizes of many devices.

Combine this with the sheer quantity of information the average person has to process and it is hardly surprising that people are selective about what they read. This makes legibility more important now than at any other point throughout history.

If you want users to engage more with your content, you must start with legibility. A fancy content management system – or even compelling marketing copy, will not do it if your site suffers from poor legibility.

How to improve legibility

If we want to improve the legibility of the copy on our sites we need to make it easier to process. Two factors impact how fast we can process the copy we read — how quickly we can read the copy and how fast we can understand what we have read.

We can address the first factor with good design. The second is tackled by the quality of our writing.

Improve reading speed through good design

With so much content online it is hardly surprising that users do not read what we have written word for word. We therefore need to design reading experiences that accommodate the scanning of content. This can be achieved through a series of design approaches.

  • Typography. Not all fonts are equal, especially online. Choosing a typeface with a wider width, or which has been specifically designed for the screen will significantly improve legibility.
  • Line length. Aim for between 50–75 characters per line. Less than this and the user will be forced to scan back and forth too often. More than this and the user is likely to lose their place.
  • Size. The size of body copy is particularly important. As a general rule of thumb, larger is better. The size of copy should be proportional to the available viewing area though, in order to maintain line length. For example, if you scale this site down the font size will reduce at certain breakpoints.
  • Line height. When lines are packed too closely together, it is easy for the reader to accidentally skip to the next line. Improve legibility significantly by allowing some breathing space between lines.
  • Margins. Space around text can be just as important as space between lines. When there are two columns of text it is easy for the eye to skip between columns if there is not sufficient space between them.
  • Formatting. Large blocks of text broken up with headings, pull out quotes, and lists (like this article), significantly helps the user to get the ‘gist’ of a page without reading every word. It also helps them find content within a page that might be of more interest.

Improving the visual appearance of copy can aid the process of digesting it, however reading copy is only half the battle. Understanding what you have read is important too.

Improve understanding through better writing

Poorly written copy will both slow the reading of copy and the readers understanding of it. That means legibility is much a copy writers problem as it is the problem of a designer.

There are two things that a content creator can do to improve the legibility of their writing.

First they can front load copy. Many writers tend to take too much time to get to the point. Instead you should begin each page by summarising your main argument. If you read the first paragraph of this post, you will see I have done exactly that.

But don’t stop there. Also be sure to front load individual sections too. Often this can be done in the section headings, but if not there, make use of the first paragraph. Always lead with the point you are making and then back up that point in the following sentences.

The second thing content creators can do is reduce the reading level of copy. The higher the reading grade of copy, the harder it is to process. This slows comprehension and in some cases stops it entirely. Everybody benefits from easier to read copy, but it is particularly helpful for those with cognitive disabilities like dyslexia, as well as those who do not speak English as a first language.

There are many tools out there which help improve your site’s reading level. My personal favourite is Aim for a reading grade of less than ten for bold, clear writing. Do this and you will significantly improve the legibility of the site.

Think before you invest

We are all constantly seeking to improve the effectiveness of our websites, and there are no shortage of companies out there willing to sell you an expensive piece of technology or impressive sounding marketing campaign to help. But before you next spend money on your website stop and ask yourself whether the basics are all as optimised as they could be. Improving legibility is cheap to do and is often just as effective as investing in new technology or commissioning an expensive ad agency.