We write text daily: emails, news, presentation text, websites and user interfaces, marketing text, and maybe, as in my case, text for a blog article. But we rarely think about usability, that is, the usability of the text. Text also has usability and it can be improved.
The User Problem: Information Overload
We receive an average of 18 business emails per day. There are also 37 WhatsApp messages that we spend 29 minutes on, 149 minutes is spent surfing the internet and we watch TV for 221 minutes. On the way, we pass billboards and information terminals, and in the mailbox letters and flyers are waiting.
Through all these and other media, we get one thing: information. Whether relevant or not, it is above all: too much.
No wonder that, in 2004, the Institute for Consumer and Behavior Research calculated an information overload of 98% for Germany. This means that we don’t process 98% of all information that we encounter. It has missed its purpose. So, what if we actually have something important to tell our readers?
Motivation to Read Text
We must provide the user with a reason to take a closer look at our writing. We can achieve this by using one of the following five motivations in the headline:
Particularly motivating are advantages or things that make us curious. Even when it comes to something we know, for example, our own city, we are alerted.
Ideally, we now have the attention of the user. But now comes the difficult part. The user must understand the information, process it as quickly as possible and not be bored. Otherwise, we will immediately lose them again. After all, there are many other things that they could be doing.
Write Relevant, Understandable and Clear Text
That’s actually not that difficult. Of course, the content must first be right. The rule of thumb is: as short as possible but as long as necessary. Our text should therefore contain all information that is relevant to the user. Ideally, you can use examples, provided they bring a clear benefit. This is the case, for example, when they help you visualize the text or arouse the reader’s emotions. But check carefully if you can leave something out if it is not crucial to your actual meaning.
But, not only are length and content relevant for ideal usability of text. There are also formal criteria that make text easier to read and more appealing. To optimize our text to that effect, the following 10-point editing system can help.
The Editing System
- Limit sentence length to a maximum of 14 words per sentence.
- Do not use nouns that do not generate an image as they do not appeal to the reader’s senses or feelings. For example, condition, initiative, theory, hypothesis and so forth.
- Be wary of foreign words and jargon and replace them if necessary.
- Delete auxiliary verbs like can, must, would, may, want and should. These make text vague. The classic example: “I would like to apply …” Well, then do it!
- Check if you really need passive sentence structures, as they make text more complicated.
- Forego sentences in the subjunctive. Not “This could be your new bike”, but “This is your new bike”. This turns on the mind’s eye of the reader.
- Check pronouns. Where can I/we/us be replaced by you/yours? This makes the text more personal.
- Avoid negative terms and words like none and not, because they can trigger negative associations. Replace “no problem” with “very simple”.
- Delete repetitions.
But before you start, one important caveat: these points help uncover potential for improvement. But they are not mandatory. This means that you must check carefully whether a change really makes the text better.
In any case, it is worth revisiting a written text critically. On the one hand, for the user who will find reading it more pleasant and who will receive all the information that is important to them. On the other hand, also for us authors. Finally, we have something to share. And it would be a shame if it does not, or only partially, reach our readers in the flood of information.