User testing of content: how to write so users read your words

You want users to read your words don't you?

The thing is - reading is harder than many writers realise.

I recently came across an article about long sentences in government advice about COVID 19.  The article was in The Conversation. The authors argued that 'Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand.'  The authors correctly identified complex sentences like this: 

"Phase 3 will be subject to health advice, but will focus on continuing to build stronger links within the community and include further resumption of commercial and recreational activities."

As the authors pointed out this is a complex sentence because of the number of words in this sentence (29 in total) and the formality of the language.  In this example many of the words are also long - six have more than three syllables. The language used is also quite formal. As the authors of the article say, the last part of the sentence is better expressed as 'opening businesses and allowing some personal activities'. 

For me, this is about 'reading' rather than 'understanding'

It is absolutely true that content creators need to write for their users in the language that users can understand.

There is more to it than that though. After years of conducting user testing interviews about content like this, I suspect that many people would not even read it - I have seen many people start reading something and then stop before the end, and many not start at all.

How people read

When people read they rely on their working memory to understand the meaning of the individual words. Then they make sense of how those words fit together, going backwards and forwards at each key word.  Logically, the more words in the sentence, the harder this is to do.

When the reader is under stress  - worried about their health, or about the state of their business for example -  they have even less working memory to devote to the task.

So, by the time we get to 'recreational' in the sentence above, readers are tired. They have looked at each of the preceding words multiple times, and stored the meaning of each word in working memory, which is why readers typically spend longer looking at the last word in the sentence than they do those at the beginning. 

When users come across a word they are unsure of - say 'resumption' - they spend longer on that word and use up even more working memory.

Lists of bullets have the same fatiguing effect, especially when they start with the same words as these do. Three of the bullets start with the word 'reopening'; and two with 'resuming'.

Some people don't even start to read

It is often said in user testing that 'people don't start things they can't finish'. Users with low levels of literacy for example are likely to look at blocks of paragraphs, or long lists of bullets and not even start to read any of it.

Users stop reading when

  • They don't know the meaning of a key word in the sentence. For example, the word 'resumption' in the sentence above is rarely heard in everyday conversational speech
  • The language is more formal than they are used to - 'recreational and commercial activities' for example.
  • The sentence construction is complex. The opening sentence 'Phase 3 will be subject to health advice' is a complex way of saying that the government will make decisions about Phase 3 after they have received advice from government health experts.

Users who only read part of your message may:

  • Misunderstand what they are allowed to do. 
  • Call the Hotline or use other government resources unnecessarily
  • Become frustrated with the way the government is handling the crisis

Are there any good examples?

Yes, there are. Much of the relevant NSW health website for example conforms to plain language guidelines and is easy to read. Some Fact Sheets for people with a disability have been written in what the government calls 'Easy English' such as Coronavirus - What is it? From the Australian government. 

My user testing expertise

Over the last two decades,  I have tested - and continue to test  - how people read or stopped reading about: cycling safety, exchange-traded funds, denied insurance claims, superannuation fees and charges, and many others.  I have watched how people read letters, landing pages, statements and brochures. 

If you want to know more, please visit our Usability page, where I explain how we can use our Usability Testing service to find out how well your customers and users understand your complex and technical information, or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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