People Read on the Web

Web designers and usability pundits have said for years that people don’t read on the web. At best they skim, and if you have copy that is not juxtaposed with some attractive image it won’t be read. In those days we were encouraged to put as much as possible above the fold and keep the copy short (one liners were even better). As someone who has been involved in developing for the online channel since 1994, I worked hard to live by this rule. Now I believe it’s no longer valid, and here’s why.

  • Sharper and larger flat screens are more affordable and allows for comfortable reading with less scrolling
  • Web 2.0 experience has simplified web page design, removed clutter and keeps users on the same page, even when executing fairly complex tasks
  • Proliferation of community on the web (blogs) drive people to interact primarily by reading
  • People have many screens that are connected to the web (analog form factors are isolated) which means they learn to read with all devices

These are primarily hardware and connectivity changes that have taken place in too short a time to say that humans have changed. That means people have done what they do best, adapt. Web 1.0 allowed us to click and travel for the first time with a machine. Much more fun than reading. During the time between 1.0 and 2.0 everyone, and I mean everyone, has put content on the Internet. Web 2.0 has given us the magic to make that content travel from device to device, and be easily shared with others. But unlocking the value of that content demands that we read it.

Humans are very good at reading. The novelty of being able to click around on the web has worn off and so we are once again getting down to business by reading and interpreting the written word.

I just sat through two days of focus groups where we combined traditional usability testing and market research. I was skeptical at first, but it has worked out very well and validated my reading theory. The users ignored single lines of copy and gravitated to the larger paragraphs on each and every screen. The images on the page didn’t have much impact. What resonated was site structure (where should I go?) and words that told a story. Narratives are much more powerful than one liners on web sites.

Users are much more sophisticated today about the web. Less wowed by the technology and more thoughtful about what’s being presented. The idea of the web is understood and now second nature. That doesn’t mean we should publish War and Peace, but it does mean we can be more conversational with our visitors.

Don’t let the dot point marketers take over the copywriting duties, or allow your company to gush all over itself (Let us tell you how great we are…). Be fun, informative, interesting and get to the point. But when it needs more, write it.

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