Readability: A Case Study
How to make copy more readable
Families USA is a healthcare research and advocacy nonprofit. They had incredibly rich content, an aging website, and a fairly heavy print-based (meaning, a ton of PDF reports) approach to producing content. I was brought on to manage their publications and run the editorial and design teams as Director of Content Strategy.
One thing that we all agreed on was that the website needed to be redesigned (and it was). But how to handle publications was not as simple. The organization strongly wanted to retain printed reports and PDFs, even when it came to digital audiences, and despite the fact that analytics showed that a minority (a quarter) of visitors were downloading those PDFs. That was fine. The PDFs had other uses. But I had to figure out how to leverage our new website to make better use of all that content.
My challenge was to optimize print-based publications for digital consumption without eliminating PDF reports and briefs altogether. I think we came up with a good solution. You can see an example of a redesigned PDF here. The report looks deceptively simple (as it should!) but the process of working with writers, editors, and designers to get there took some work. We all learned a lot. Here’s what we did.
I came up with this three-pronged approach to optimize our reports for digital readers. (Check out the graphic at the bottom of the page for a visual explainer.)
1. Redesigning—not for aesthetics—but for readability online. First, I conducted an audit of all existing publications. Then I gave everything a drastic redesign to modernize a dated look. But the redesign’s primary goal was not aesthetic—it was for readability. I knew that it wasn’t feasible to simply move the content from a PDF to HTML reports—the organization simply wasn’t going to accept that. Instead, I had to redesign the PDFs so that, when people read them online, the content would at least be optimized for their screens. That extended beyond design—it affected how we wrote.
2. Changing our editorial practices to improve readability—online and overall. You can have a great page layout and engaging aesthetics but, at the end of the day, if your copy lacks a consistent structure and style, you’ll lose your readers. Everyone knows this. But design will magnify weaknesses in the structure. I had to retrain my editors and our writers to write for the new style (chunking out text, writing succinct summaries, headlines, introductory paragraphs, and more).
I know that designers get dinged for forcing content to fit the design. But as a designer with a writer’s brain (or vice-versa), for me, these two concepts are inextricably linked. And I knew that if I was designing layouts optimized for reading best practices, the writing had to follow suit.
3. Extracting the best insights from publications to create engaging web copy. Lastly, for the three-fourths of our visitors who were not downloading PDFs, we had to create a high-value digital experience for them on our site. For these folks, improving the quality of the web copy was key.
Here’s how we changed our writing style:
We adopted a stricter approach to eliminating long-winded or passive copy. It tends to sneak into writers used to academic writing. For online audiences, however, it can really get in the way. We put extra attention on editing out any redundancies (you’ve heard them: “unexpected surprise,” “close proximity,” etc.).
Then, I asked writers to produce a tight content outline and stick to it. This was the “contract” between the writer and the editor that was essential to an efficient and clear writing process. I can’t live without it. An outline allowed everyone involved to quickly spot logic or clarity gaps in the piece. When editing a piece, I would always revert to the content outline if I was confused—the outline was the map that kept the piece on-message.
My favorite exercise for writers is this: If a reader reads the titles, heads, and subheads in your content outline, along with the key headings and findings of charts/graphs, will they understand your piece enough to be able to explain the key takeaway back to you?
I also asked editors to write SEO-rich headlines and subheads. Not only is this good writing practice, but it saves time when writing web-copy also.
And, of course, we shortened paragraphs. The standard is 70 words, and I know we strayed from that considerably, but at least it was the goal!
As the graphic below shows, readers like to jump to things that are designed or formatted differently. A good writer will understand and write for these key elements, and a good designer will format them for maximum attention. And it takes a partnership between the two to achieve that efficiently. The anatomy of these elements is below.
Anatomy of a good page layout
Headline/title: (keyword-rich, providing trustworthy cues as to what the reader will find/learn)
Intro paragraph: The first two sentences should give away the main insight/findings of the piece. A practice that I instituted was asking writers, editors, and reviewers to read the first paragraph on their phone. Was it too long? Unclear? Meandering?
I reminded the writers and editors that they’re competing against the attention of a million content producers every single time they published something, and they had to earn their readers’ attention.
And, of course, the key ideas of the piece needed to be presented in the paragraph.
Headings: These should map back to the main sections of the headline and contain critical keywords. They should each focus on each key idea that was presented in the opening paragraph, preferably in the same order.
Subheads: Same as above.
Sidebars: These are often used incorrectly. Designers will format all sidebars in the same way, even though the purpose of the content is different. This is confusing to the reader. Different elements should be formatted differently (e.g., definition boxes are blue, profiles are gray, case studies are green—you get the idea). This is where structure comes in. I’ve edited lots of pieces that contain asides (stuff that isn’t central to the reader’s understanding of the main narrative) inside the main body copy and not in a sidebar. And I’ve seen sidebar content that does the opposite. Again, this is an example where you need a good editing brain and a good design brain (or a good manager!) to produce readable content.
Graphics: Graphic titles are super important. Some readers learn visually—they look at graphs and charts and take their findings from the visual elements displayed. Other readers are the opposite—the visuals throw them off, but they’ll read the graph title for the finding.
Some readers find the takeaway from a bar graph; others from the graph’s title. You have to write and design for both.
The graphic at the end of this section shows two versions of graphic titles. One is better than the other. Check it out.
Orientation matters: The last thing that we did was change the orientation of the publications to landscape (sideways) from portrait (the standard way). Why? Simple. We knew that the majority of our audience—including the minority of those who were actually reading the PDFs—weren’t printing. Therefore, they were reading on their desktop screens (our analytics showed high desktop use). So we redesigned the PDFs to the monitor orientation for less scrolling. I wish I could say that this resulted in higher downloads. We did experience that but we changed so many other things that I can’t say for certain. But at least it went up!
Check out the illustration below for more.