As marketers, we work under a dichotomy of  bot-friendly page design and readability, constantly balancing UX design (your user experience) with the need to drive traffic through organic search. Luckily, improved search engine intelligence, along with search’s reliance on user traffic, means that readability for people typically translates into great SEO.

At Found Conference, Ray Grieselhuber, CEO at DemandSphere, spoke on the importance of designing for readability. Ray says that reader-oriented design falls at the intersection of four concepts: search engine optimization, great user experience, reader-friendly copy writing, and whatever conversions make sense for your business.

Designing for Readers

A reader-oriented approach to design serves UX, SEO, copywriting and business conversions.

How can competing priorities impact UX?

Ray says that, because so many parts of an organization touch the user/readability experience, specific challenges to readability tend to occur at the team level. Let’s look at the challenges posed to disparate sections of the marketing team:

  • Copywriters are content creation experts — but they don’t control the technical environment. They also don’t typically have any say in how their content is rendered on the page or in the browser. Another concern: writers often come in as subject-matter experts, not SEO experts. A disconnect may exist between the creation of valuable content, and the creation of search engine optimized content.
  • SEOS may come from a more technical background, but they also don’t make the decisions regarding CMS settings, servers, media, or rendering. SEOs typically don’t have direct line management over writers or developers, so their control over creative is sometimes limited.
  • Business managers are often jacks of many trades — but experts in none of them. Therefore, site managers may find themselves “herding cats” as they address conflicting priorities from editorial, SEO and development.
  • IT and CMS managers may have the biggest impact on readability. They handle anything that needs to be changed at the server level or template-rendering level. However, developers may be outside of internal SEO conversations, especially if they’re siloed in another department, and very especially if they’re third-party.

Conversations about readability in design tends to focus on text optimization and layout optimization, sometimes to the detriment of other UX priorities. A disconnected team can harm your brand through poor user experience, and this doesn’t happen only in massive conglomerates. Cohesive team workflow can be of issue in teams of any size! However, because of the cross-departmental nature of user experience, designing for readers can be a great opportunity to rise out of departmental silos and coordinate.

One study from the early 2010s showed that, at that time, web designers had 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression. Just like with human interaction, users make quick judgments about the level of interaction they want with your site, and they make them as soon as they land on your site. 

Competing priorities can negatively impact user experience. Say your user wants to read an article, then is hit with a popup lead generation page asking for their email address. From a development standpoint, the lead-gen may be a “best practice” that drives tons of conversions — but it’s not great for user experience. E-commerce companies that sell minimally-differentiated products already tend to suffer from un-engaging content: a bad interface can take that user experience from dull to downright annoying.

Will they stay or will they go?

To get in a reader-oriented mindset, realize that questions of readability begins before the user lands on your website. Consider how you search: it’s a multi-step process that begins with a question or topi. You perform a search, select a link from the list of results, and hit that landing page. You’re going to decide very quickly whether to stay there,  Readability and user experience are the two biggest factors — and that’s just at the beginning of the user experience.

User intent flow chart

Readability begins before the user lands on your page.

Think about these readability factors that may impact your users’ decision to stay on-page or abandon your site:

  • Design. Does your page look as expected to the reader? If they’re looking for products or quick facts, they won’t want to be hit with a wall of text or an auto-play video. Onsite readability includes a number of factors that determines whether a user remains or leaves your website.
  • Load times. Load times and rendering times aren’t the exclusive domain of the IT department. If it takes more than a few seconds for the page to load, the user’s expectations for that page will be extremely high — and you’re liable to lose them.
  • Intent scent. Users sniff out information as they search for the topics in which they’re interested, narrowing down their options as they travel through the search journey. If you land on a site and feel you were tricked into going there, that feeling will have a big effect on your decision to stay or leave the site.

Remember: attention is currency, and losing your users’ attention means lost revenue. If you want to have a positive impact on the UX and readability of your site, you need to focus on the correlation of readability and user experience with the overall success of your brand.

Make readability a bigger part of your marketing projects

How do we start fixing readability issues? Ray says that a common misconception lies in the belief that a one-time audit will solve all of your readability problems. In reality, readability isn’t a one-and-done process: it’s an ongoing practice of improvements to your site. We know that SEO is only successful when it’s practiced concurrently with all of your marketing efforts: we need to think of readability in the same way.

In order to ensure readability across your site, make sure to practice the basics:

Define KPIs

How do you measure your success around capability, and how do you determine whether your audience finds your material easy to consume? Do you measure reading completion rates?

Take care of the technical side of UX

Are you measuring and optimizing how readability is carried across devices and browsers? How are your media compression and page speed statistics? How is your overall site health, and do your meta data and sitemap create any barriers to indexability?

Clean up your content pages

If your site is well designed overall, you’ll be well-set for readability.Use standard editorial guides. Assign a brand manager to determine fonts, ligatures, colors, word usage, image color usage, and other basics to templatize page types. Use your CMS to create templates for page types, such as product and article pages. And, set words counts and goal readability scores for articles.

Design for readers at the site level

Test your indexability, check your sitemaps, determine whether your navigation is healthy, and check Search Console regularly for errors. If this sounds like an SEO audit, that’s because SEO and UX are intertwined!

Think about and declare the user intent for each piece of content

When creating landing pages, understand what your user might be trying to do when coming to that page. Set preferred landing pages for target keywords. Most content falls into categories such as informational, navigational, commercial, or transactional. Each of these different intentions deserves different content, unique calls to action, or paths to conversion. 

Assume readers are scanning content, and keep content simple

Unless your site is geared toward information-heavy users, you need to write for people who are scanning for information. Ray recommends the following readability best practices:

  • Write for people who are typically scanning.
  • Use strong outline formats, and make sure your information flows in a logical way.
  • Check across browsers to make sure your document formatting is correct
  • In a long article, use useful section headings to improve readability.
  • Make use of lists and bullets to break down the article, but avoid multi-layered nests and sections.
  • Make use of tables and some charts and graphics — but make sure they make sense in the context of your article.
  • Write short sentences and short sections.
  • Use simple, Germanic words (“use” vs. “utilize” etc.).
Design for readers at the site level.

Design for readers at the site level and at the page level.

Designing for readers makes sense across departmental priorities: it improves the user experience for both readers and robots. By making use of a readability practice in your marketing functions, you’ll get better attention, better conversions, and more usable pages.

Need help getting your site designed for your audience? Give us a shout – we’re happy to help.