Where were you in 1996? I was in the picturesque town of Davidson, North Carolina, typing away. As a senior in college, I interned at a small sports marketing firm. We produced the College Soccer Weekly website that was later bought by soccer.com. This was my first "office" job - until then I had mostly just coached soccer.
My main task was to develop website content. I conducted interviews with college soccer stars who were on the US National Teams. I interviewed legendary coaches who won often. I wrote game notes before big contests and summaries afterwards. We had 1 million "hits" per month during the busy season of Fall soccer. And that was exciting!
ONLINE WRITING IN 1996
But bless the dear soccer fans who visited our website. I often broke the rules we now know about writing for the web. Here’s an example from the article about game between top teams Notre Dame and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
"After equally good chances at both ends and some fine goalkeeping by Notre Dame's LaKeysia Beene and Carolina's Siri Mullinix, newcomer Anne Makinen of the Irish grabbed the attention 22 minutes into the game. A foul by Carolina 25 yards out gave the Irish a free kick which center midfielder Makinen perfectly placed into the lower left corner of the goal, avoiding the wall of Carolina players."
I ran this passage through a free online resource, the Hemingway Editor app. It examines your text and lets you know how readable it is. Check out the result:
Yikes! These are "very hard to read" sentences at a reading level of Grade 18! The recommended grade level for writing on the web for a U.S. audience is generally 8th grade. (Even first year college students often read at this level.)
We’ve learned so much about how people read on the web in the last 20 years. But has that actually changed our writing? Looking at many websites out there, the answer is "no."
Online Writing in 2016
In July I realized this problem with online writing was bigger than I thought. I read this article on "The Impact of Smart Analytics on Commerce" on a blog of tech giant IBM. Now certainly IBM has a batch of user experience professionals, marketers, and other employees who must understand how people read online. Right? Right?! So why can't someone edit the posts on the IBM Commerce Blog?
Look at the mess when I run this article though the Hemingway Editor:
The article's reading level is at Grade 18. There are 12 "very hard to read" sentences. This looks pretty darn similar to how I wrote in 1996.
Don't think I just cherry picked this article. I looked at a sample of 7 of them from the IBM blog. Here's that list along with the number of "very hard to read" sentences and the grade level of the writing.
- Delightful Customer Experiences: Find out How You Can Build Brand Advocacy with Every Engagement at Shop.org 2016 - 19 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 17
- It’s Time for the Grocery Industry to Forge Its Mobile Digital Blueprint - 19 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 13
- Is Your New Purchase Stalking You Online? - 9 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 11
- Online Forms are Standard and Boring - 8 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 10 (better!)
- Are your customers compelled to act based on your brand’s story? - 14 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 11
- Better Contracts, Better Business: Are You Excelling or Putting Your Company at Risk? - 9 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 15
- Preparing for Instant Payments in a Digital Economy - 13 sentences are very hard to read, Grade 16
Even highly educated IBM customers can experience cognitive overload when reading online. And our eyes get tired. We get distracted. We get lost in a long compound-complex sentence. Make it easier for everybody to read! IBM just needs one extra hour to change its articles for how people read online. Shorten sentences, find alternatives to complex words, break up lists of items. Kill the sentences that sound like a PhD student.
If you write online, you must know how people read online. Otherwise it’s like being a fashion designer without a sense of how the human body moves. You wouldn't do silly stuff like design pants that people can’t walk in. Don't write articles that are hard to read either. Nobody ever says, "Jeez, that was too easy to understand!"
So...what should we do?
Do at least one of of the following ASAP:
- Use Hemingway Editor and run all of your website text through it. There’s a free version. It’s awesome. The Internet could be a better place for all readers if we all used it.
- Read Chapter 5 from Steve Krug’s Book “Don’t Make Me Think.”
- Read Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish. You can snag a few sample chapters at Ginny’s website.
- Have beta-readers who represent your target audience read your copy. Learn what confused them and which sentences they have to re-read to understand.
Join me in writing at least for 2016, if not for the future...
Dear Content Marketing People, I’m so bummed to be writing this, but someone needs to call this to your attention.
If you had been watching me over the winter holidays, you would have seen me peacefully reading the December 2014 Issue of Chief Content Officer magazine published by the Content Marketing Institute. But then I read this advice on page 17:
"Consider incorporating carousels or sliders - old standbys that remain effective for promoting content."
Stunned. I flip over magazine to check the date, yes, it's December 2014. Go back and re-read. This can't be right.
I too was a big fan of carousels (sliders) – in 2009. Because I worked for a big organization, many groups wanted to be on the homepage. Carousels solved my problem. I was no longer forced to prioritize my organization's homepage content or tell anyone “No, I'm sorry, I’m not putting you on the homepage and here's why . . .” It was the easier, softer way. For that reason alone I should have known the carousel solution would backfire.
In 2012 the usability and accessibility experts started to speak out against carousels. Loudly. Multiple times. All over the place. They referenced usability and user experience research. One fine gentleman even bashed carousels by creating a carousel. I love that. The bottom line is that carousels are user-UN-friendly, frustrating, and ignored. That is not an opinion - this statement is based on research.
Now content marketing folks, you aren't alone in the carousel fan club that remains in 2015. I was brought to a non-profit conference to speak last October and did a lot of research ahead of time prepare for the talk. I learned that carousels are very common on non-profit websites. Some conference attendees did not like it when I strongly recommended against using carousels. "When you said that about carousels, I wanted to slap you," said one non-profit executive. Then she scornfully asked me what she should put on her homepage instead of a carousel (as if that were the only choice!), and I suggested one image, an information graphic, a video or some other kind of content, depending on what would be most useful to her target audience.
If you are really considering your users - the people you want to help, impress, partner with and/or sell to - carousels are NOT a good solution.
So, Content Marketing People, I beg you:
Stop encouraging the use of carousels!
And please take one of the following actions so you don’t make an error like this again:
- Watch this video of a talk I gave at a recent WordPress WordCamp about to learn usability principles. Go straight to 43:18 to hear about carousels.
- Sign up for the weekly e-newsletter from the Nielsen Normal Group - it’s free. They reference old and new usability research studies each week.
- Make a column on TweetDeck for the hashtag #usability and/or #userexperience.
- Get some friends in the usability and user experience community. They have good information and are nice folks.
Usability is like gravity, even if you know nothing about it or want to ignore it, you will still fall flat on your face if you don’t pay attention to it. Usability can help content marketing or it can hurt it, but it can’t be ignored.
Contact me anytime to talk about usability issues. I'm here to help. Together let's make the web a better place for all.