Too Long; Didn’t Read: How Consumers (Don’t) Read Websites

February 13, 2020 | by Dan Wu

When you explore a website, how much content would you really like to read?

For me, and probably you, the answer is “very little”. So, why do businesses tend to add blocks upon blocks of content to their websites? In their attempt to address every opportunity to sell, they end up building a wall of copy—one that will likely keep potential customers at bay.

 

Users Don’t Read. Period.

To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, I did a little digging and found an informative article titled “How People Read on the Web”. The conclusion? They don’t. It sounds like a joke, but it’s the unfortunate truth that users rarely read the content of a website. In fact, based on the average time users spend on a web page and the average amount of copy a web page contains, users read at most 28% of the words in front of them.

 

On average, users read about 20% of the text on the average page and only 10-20% of readers actually make it to the bottom of the post.

 

To further prove this aversion to reading, researchers developed five different versions of the same website, with the same basic information and site navigation, but varying wording and length of copy. They then had users perform the same tasks on each site, measuring for usability:

Website 1: The Control Condition
The first website was written with a promotional writing style (often referred to as marketese) found on many commercial websites. This was the control condition, and therefore usability improvement stood at 0% by definition.

Website 2: The Shortened Copy
The second website used concise copy that totals about half the word count of the control condition website. Relative to the control condition, cutting the copy resulted in a usability improvement of 58%.

Website 3: The New Layout
This website had the same copy as the control condition, but organized in a layout that facilitates users’ tendency to scan for information. This simple layout change resulted in a usability improvement of 47%.

Website 4: The Objective Copy
This website contained the same information as the control condition, but written using objective, neutral language rather than subjective, boastful or exaggerated. By removing all of the flowery language, usability improved by 27%.

Website 5: The Concise, Scannable, Objective Copy
The last website combined all three previous improvements in writing style together. This more concise, scannable and objective version of the website resulted in a whopping 124% usability improvement.

Let me repeat that: More concise, objective and scannable content dramatically brought usability up by 124%. That means less frustration, better user experience and a better impression for the site and, by default, the brand.

 

Web users spend 69% of their time viewing the left half of a page and 30% viewing the right.

 

Skimming is in Our Nature

These results don’t exactly come as a surprise. In our current fast-moving world, web users are too busy to read, spending only 15 seconds on average on a web page. But another reason may simply be human nature. Reading is not a natural human ability, like speaking or understanding spoken language. Over hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of years, the human brain evolved the neural structures necessary to support spoken language. As a result, the average human is born with an innate ability to learn, as a toddler with no systematic training, whatever language they are exposed to.

In contrast, writing and reading did not exist until a few thousand years BCE, and did not become commonplace until only four or five centuries ago—long after the human brain had evolved into its modern state. As outlined in Jeff Johnson’s book Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Rules, at no time during childhood do our brains show any special, innate ability to learn to read. Instead, reading is an artificial skill that we learn by systematic instruction and practice, like playing a violin, juggling or reading music.

Many people never learn to read well, or even at all. Learning to read is actually training our visual system to recognize patterns, that also involves training the brain’s systems that control eye movement to move our eyes in a specific way over text. Combine these skill-based cognitive behaviors with a shortness on time and limited attention span, and it’s a wonder how anyone ever reads what we put on our websites.

 

Keep It Simple

With all of this in mind, businesses have to be more conscious of what and how much they write on their websites. While it’s always best to lean on the shorter side, this article contains a variety of tips for turning your webpage into something users actually want to read—which in turn will make your business more competitive in your market.

And of course, if you feel your website needs a true top to bottom facelift for improved usability, you can always call the team at BatesMeron.

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