I'm going to make a sweeping generalisation here, but I'm guessing a lot of people in the web world first think of analytics and user testing when gathering 'data' to improve a website.
Is that really useful data?
Generally these scientists have sat in labs for years testing the tiniest things.
"But it's not user testing!" I hear you cry. "All audiences are different and you are not testing the right thing!" Is that going through your head right now?
Let me see if I can convince you (if you need convincing).
- people only read 20 to 28% of a page
- for every 100 words you put on a page, cognitive load is increased
- eyes move in an f-shaped pattern
Just these 3 basic facts are critical to anyone writing for the internet. We take this into account when we are writing but sometimes we don't know why we need to other than 'users prefer it'.
Academic research can help you answer the 'why'.
Take a look at this excerpt from '100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know' by Susan Weinschenk on how people read. It's research on how the brain works and takes in information. That might seem like a step too far but it gives you tips on how to convert that into your content design.
For example, it shows how:
- headings are critical
- caps are slower to read because we are not used to them, not that they are harder to read
- the font you choose affects what people perceive about text
These sorts of facts can help you write in a way that allows your users to easily understand your copy.
All about speed
When we go into lab testing, users will tell us the same thing. Sometimes, if it is an emotional purchase, time spent is seen differently. When you are looking for car insurance, you want the best deal but it would be great if it was all over and done with.
I've already blogged about finding the correct vocabulary to talk to your audience and it's critical to making content user-centric. But there's academic research that can tell you why certain words are easier to understand.
High- and low-frequency words
Just imagine you are sitting on a train, reception is dodgy, you have had a rubbish day at work and all you want to know is a single short piece of information. It's not going to take long to get through the text but it would be a tiny bit faster if someone used a high-frequency word instead of a low-frequency word.
Now imagine you are sitting on a train, reception is dodgy, you have had a rubbish day at work and you don't read so well. Your eyes hurt, the letters swim in front of you and you are trying to get through this text. 100 milliseconds isn't much to most. But what if it makes your information harder to get across for no real reason? Especially if you have used a lot of low-frequency words and added some technical terms for good measure. You probably wouldn't have lost anything by removing the jargon and using high-frequency words. You've just got in the way and made it unnecessarily laborious by using low-frequency terms though.
With academic research you are a finding out how the brain works - the basics of reading. That can tell us loads about our audience and all audiences. In the Western, left-to-right reading world, our brain processing happens in similar ways and academics can help us understand that.
I don't sit down and think 'Ooo 100 milliseconds extra there, Sarah. Is it worth it?' I do think 'is that a common word? Is there another one I can use that won't harm the sentence or meaning? Do I want to use that word?'. As a content designer, it is a choice and I make it based on the tone I want to set and the vocabulary my audience will find easy to understand.
As always, I want them to take away what I am saying , not how I am saying it.
If you are not sure about something, how to write it or why lab testing came out the way it did - I'd suggest looking at academic research. You'll find the 'what to do' in lab testing; you'll find the 'why it happens' in research.
Links to interesting research
Some of the links don't lead to academic research but it's still research and it might be useful.
This post from Sebastian Wren, tells us how many words people have in their vocabulary at what age. It can help when you are setting the basics for tone and style. You've probably seen 'aim for a reading age of 9' in a style guide somewhere. This is just one element of where that point probably comes from.
Measuring word recognition in reading: eye movements and event related potentials is a brilliant introduction to reading and how it works. I'd recommend this one to anyone who writes.
This article from Scientific American by Ferris Jbar, called 'The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens' has some interesting thoughts and links to research about the way humans behave and take information.
Preliminary Experiments in the Physiology and Psychology of Reading by Edmund B. Huey gives you information about the physical and psychological effects of reading. It's really old but fascinating.
I also put some research links in my post on 'dumbing down'.