Many a scientific study has been commissioned and conducted exploring the fascinatingly complex cognitive process we go through when we read. One long-standing theory, first proposed in 1886, centered around the idea of rapid pattern recognition and recall—known as the word shape recognition model. It was believed that repeatedly exposing our eyes to the pattern or shape a single word would form enabled us to quickly recognise and recall it from memory. Further weight was lent to this theory when it was proved that letters could be more accurately recognised in the context of a word than in isolation—known as the word superiority effect.
For example, we’re more adept at recognising the letter C in the context of the word “content” than in the context of something unfathomable as “ncotetn”. This was successfully counter-argued when, in 1977, it was demonstrated that even a word that, by way of a recognisable structure and phonetics, appears to be an actual word in a certain language “pread” could be recognised faster than its jumbled counterpart “erpda”. This proved that the word superiority effect wasn’t caused by the shape of the word, but rather the existence of regular and familiar letter combinations. In fact, it’s this model of parallel letter recognition (see Figure 1) that most psychologists now widely accept as the most accurate. Rather than recognising patterns we’ll simultaneously decode the features (lines and curves) of a word’s individual letters before rapidly matching the exact position and order of each letter against words we already recognise.
The use of increasingly sophisticated eye-tacking software has greatly improved our understanding of the short, rapid movements, or saccades, our eyes make as we read. Imagine one such step as a pseudo-Venn diagram (Figure 2), with two blurred sets overlapping with one another to create a third crystal-clear central area. It’s this center-most point, called the fovea, where our intensified attempts at word recognition take place, with the blurred area immediately to the right beginning the process of gathering information about upcoming words.
Create comfortable reading conditions
Of course, not everyone approaches reading in the same way. Plenty of methods exist, from subvocalization, when an all-too-familiar voice in our head helpfully relays what we’ve decoded; to speed reading, when our ability to fill in the missing information using context and identify words without having to focus on every letter, is tested to the extreme. But no matter which method we use for decoding text on a printed page, computer screen, or handheld device, we’ll spend much of our mental energy capacity trying to comprehend what we’ve read. Whether we’re successful—or, more accurately, satisfied —with our interpretation will largely depend on our:
- grasp of the content’s language and cultural origin
- familiarity with the subject matter
- ability to retain information, which can be adversely affected by factors such as location, lighting, and fatigue
- motivation to scale the learning curve.
To encourage user comprehension of our own written web content we’ll try to create conditions conducive to comfortable reading. We’ll ensure there’s sufficient contrast between foreground and background colors, try not to marry too many different styles on individual pages, and avoid centrally aligned and fully justified text for consistent word spacing. Where applicable, we’ll also make use of visual aids to enhance contextual understanding. Those visual aids may include images, illustrations, charts, audio, and video, and can be used in a supporting role or as a direct alternative to text.
Of course, the conditions we create will not always be suitable for everyone. Users with certain requirements may need, or choose, to wrestle back control over the way text content is rendered. Font substitutions along with alterations to the size, space, alignment, and color can all be achieved with visual reading assistants, such as screen magnifiers, personal style sheets, or more recent innovations such as arc90’s readability bookmarklet (Figure 3) and the new Safari Reader.
Define or avoid industry-specific terminology
As well as readability prepares the ground for comprehension, readability can’t necessarily guarantee comprehension. If our web content requires a successful marriage between the text’s readability and the user’s prior knowledge of and interest in the subject matter, then what if the content’s language is strongly associated with a particular discipline or technology area? Such content, while perfectly readable and comprehensible to those with close ties to that subject area, can prove problematic, with attempts to deduce meaning potentially compromised by a series of unrecognisable words, phrases, and acronyms.
One solution is a website-specific glossary of terms. A glossary can provide not only a comprehensive definition of each term or phrase, but also sufficient additional material to enable the user to understand that term’s contextual importance. Safe within the confines of our own particular profession or technical field, we often rely on a short-handed vocabulary of uncommon or specialised terms in a bid to save time, space, and energy when communicating with similarly experienced and informed individuals. But while this colloquial lexicon may be appropriate for most members of our intended audience, the use of such terms on a public-facing website or system may present obstacles for non-specialist readers, beloved first-time visitors, or people with learning disabilities.
Clearly mindful of this, the online shoe and clothing shop Zappos.com has provided a glossary page (Figure 4) that lists expansions for the commonly used terms, acronyms, and abbreviations used throughout the Zappos.com website. For the people entrenched in this industry – including those tasked with planning, creating, delivering, and maintaining content for the website and other media channels – the use of such terms and their precise meaning could be taken for granted when, to a cross section of your users, the terms may mean a multitude of different things entirely. As much as it effectively lifts the lid on the language of the industry, Zappos.com’s glossary of terms gives the user the added confidence that the sum result of his interactions, which may be ordering and receiving a new pair of shoes, will meet his now “educated” preconceptions. The glossary also allows Zappos.com a certain degree of freedom to use the terms on the website instead of having to find an alternative, and possibly longer, way of clarification – or trust that the user will carry out his own investigations whilst at the critical point of purchase.
Offer pronunciations where meaning depends on it
Certain learning disabilities, such as Dyslexia, can make it more difficult to understand figurative language: where the departure from literal meaning cannot always be interpreted without familiarity with the overall context or until acquiring more information about it. This challenge is never more evident than when attempting to cross into unfamiliar cultural and linguistic boundaries. Let’s face it; the English language is rather unforgiving at times. We have several heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings), such as the words lead (to guide/dense metal) and wound (injury/to encircle). Oftentimes, the meaning of such words or characters can be confidently determined from the context of the sentence or from the subject matter itself. However, for more complex or ambiguous sentences, or for some languages, the meaning behind a word or phrase cannot be easily determined, or determined at all, without first knowing the pronunciation.
Glossaries can also provide users with the information required to pronounce certain terms. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (Gathering of Musicians of Ireland) is a non-profit group involved in the preservation and promotion of traditional Irish music. As the group’s website and organisation frequently use Irish language terms, the group has made the pronunciation of each word, with text and audio delivery, available via a separate glossary page (Figure 5). It’s this auditory approach to aiding comprehension that would also greatly benefit some people with Dyslexia, who don’t always attribute the main cause or factor to vision but rather to phonology (how the person converts what he sees into the sound units that make up a single word). To understand pronunciations, some people with Dyslexia benefit from the synthesised voice output from a screen reader, which they use whilst decoding text content on the web, or when using a software application.
But on occasions when a sentence is read aloud and the screen reader reads a word using the wrong pronunciation, the result may be a greater number of different interpretations and conclusions for a partially sighted or blind user who relies on this assistive technology for reading on the web. Depending on a website’s audience, and in particular for non-native English speakers, there may need to be additional information on the pronunciation of certain words or phrases. In such cases, a separate glossary page, like the example shown on Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s website, or an inline pronunciation applied to the first occurrence within a single web page make for ideal supporting material.
Don’t leave some of your audience behind
If simplicity, as Plain English advocate Alan Siegel defines it, is a means to achieve clarity, transparency, and empathy, then in addition to employing the clearest and simplest written language appropriate for the type of content we’re delivering and the audience to whom we’re delivering it, we should also:
- explain procedures with step-by-step guides and flow charts
- provide definitions and expansions when the subject-matter, language, or culture warrants them
- summarise visual information such as the data, trends, and implications of charts and graphs.
Does providing this supporting material mean a web content strategy is flawed? No, quite the opposite. Even a technically sound website that allows its users to access its content by way of sight, sound, and touch (via assistive technology such as a refreshable Braille device) cannot be considered usable let alone accessible if no one is able to accurately judge the functionality, purpose, and, to an extent, limitations of its content.
Never before have we had so much control and choice over how our web content is delivered and displayed. One minute we could be using a mobile device while sat in a noisy, crowded train carriage and the next we’re using a desktop computer in the more tranquil surroundings of our own home; two reading conditions that call for different levels of concentration and yet we’re often trying to consume the same written web content in order to complete the same interactions. The challenge we’re increasingly faced with is providing an experience befitting of these different conditions. We need to design interactions that respond to context; thinking as carefully about where our users will be when they need us and their likely state of mind just as much as we ever have about who they are. But regardless of ambient conditions any successful web-based interactions will always hinge on the user’s comprehension and interpretation of what, why, and how.