I was working with a client a while ago who had been given the goal of achieving a readability age of 6 for all the content they were going to put on their new website. The site is for people who run businesses of all sizes and types, so it seems reasonable to expect a range of reading skills. But age 6 readability was making it really hard to cover all the information that the site needed to explain. How could this be done?

What is readability, anyway?

It wasn’t clear which readability test should be used (there a lots – see wikipedia for some options). But all readability tests look at factors like complexity of syntax, sentence length, and complexity of vocabulary. For six-year-olds, all of these need to be at a really simple level. But topics like consumer rights and agricultural practices just don’t lend themselves to single-clause sentences and only everyday words – not without sounding really silly, anyway.

If you want to explore readability a bit more, try using this website to see how something you’ve written scores: https://readability-score.com/text/

Is readability really the right measure?

We spent some time exploring why this readability level had been identified, and it seemed that perhaps there was some confusion between readability and making it really easy to extract information from a piece of text.

Readability, Comprehensibility, Usability

Some useful distinctions came out of the conversation, and I’ve found them a good talking point with other clients since then:

Readability: Simplicity of syntactic construction and type of vocabulary.
Comprehensibility: Can the user understand the content? This includes considering factors such as whether they understand the terminology and concepts and are able to relate the information to their context.
Usability: Can the user pick out relevant information from the page? This includes considering factors such as text layout and the use of relevant headings to support scanning.

What we concluded

One of the conclusions that came from this discussion was that if we really targeting a reading age of 6 then it would be better to avoid using text as the medium, and use video or animations instead. Unfortunately, there were various reasons this wasn’t going to be possible.

We also agreed reading age of 6 would probably be damaging to comprehensibility and usability – by making the experience of reading too unpleasant.

Instead, we decided it would be sensible to shift away from the readability score alone. Comprehensibility was also essential, and if the site wasn’t usable, the site just wouldn’t get used. We agreed that slightly more complex language could be used, but the client team could – and should – also focus on other ways to make sure it feels really easy for readers too.

 

The site that got produced is here: https://www.businesscompanion.info/

(I don’t take any credit for the content this site contains, by the way: that’s all the work of the team at the Trading Standards Institute.)

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